For the Birds Radio Program: Turkey Hunt

Original Air Date: July 6, 1989

Turkeys have become a popular game bird in Wisconsin and Minnesota, after a successful introduction program. Why does Laura consider it an error to call it a “re-introduction”?

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Turkey Hunt

(Recording of a Wild Turkey)

According to the Minnesota D.N.R., a record 930 Wild Turkeys were taken in this year’s Minnesota spring turkey season. All of Minnesota’s turkey zones are in the southeastern part of the state, where stocking in the 1960’s and 1970’s has slowly brought turkey numbers to fairly high levels. Turkeys are occasionally spotted in other places in the state, like on London Road in Duluth this spring, but these sightings may well be of escaped game farm birds rather than of genuine wild birds. Oddly enough, the turkey is not a native Minnesota bird, and was never very common in Wisconsin, either. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Thomas Sadler Roberts carefully examined the history of turkeys in Minnesota, and concluded that the species didn’t exist here until white settlers brought it in. The small wild population of turkeys in southern Wisconsin was exterminated before the 1900’s. Excessive hunting, habitat loss, diseases spread from domestic fowl, and especially the chestnut blight reduced turkeys to dangerously low numbers throughout their natural range in the southeastern United States, but reintroductions have brought them back to somewhat stable numbers.

Native Americans were the first to domesticate the turkey, which was originally found only in mature chestnut, beech, and oak forests in what is now the southern United States and Mexico. Spanish conquistadors brought some of these domesticated birds back to Europe early in the 16th century—most of the European countries got them in turn from the Turkish Empire, which was how the turkey got its name. Domesticated turkeys were brought back to America by early colonists, and early Americans were so delighted to discover that a bird of such great economic importance was native only to this continent that it almost became the National Emblem of the United States, losing out to the eagle by only one congressional vote. John James Audubon selected it as the number one bird in his Birds of North America. This kind of popularity, especially among sportsmen, has led to the introduction of turkeys to the rest of the United States, with varying success; it is now possible to find them in all of the lower 48 states, though many of these birds are descended from domesticated stock. This spring’s Minnesota hunt took two birds weighing over 27 pounds, which is more than double the normal weight of pure wild stock.

Unlike other game birds, turkeys are hunted in spring rather than in fall. Hunters gain an advantage, because it’s easier to attract males with gobbling calls in spring, and oddly enough, removing some of the adult males may actually help the survival of the young. Adult male turkeys are very aggressive, and there are records of them killing their own babies. Males don’t take part in caring for the young, and many females will mate with a single male, so if hunters take some of the males, the population may not be harmed. Turkeys are mast eaters—the bulk of their diet over much of their natural range used to be chestnuts, and now is acorns and beechnuts. They can eat as much as a pound of acorns in a single meal—their powerful gizzard grinds the hard mast to a digestible paste.

A turkey lives its life with unmatched vigor—it’s been recorded flying 55 miles per hour for a full mile, it eats with gusto, and it packs a wallop in a fight. Ogden Nash wrote of it:

There is nothing more perky
Than a masculine turkey.
When he struts he struts
With no ifs or buts.
When his face is apoplectic
His harem grows hectic,
And when he gobbles
Their universe wobbles.

(Recording of a Wild Turkey)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”