For the Birds Radio Program: Turkeys

Original Air Date: Nov. 22, 1999

Lots about wild turkeys and their history

Audio missing


Once loons have deserted us for the season, Minnesota is in need of an auxiliary backup state bird. Chickadees are the right choice for most of the winter, but the clear choice on the fourth Thursday in November is the turkey. The Wild Turkey was the bird John James Audubon graced with the number on e position in his Birds of America, and the bird Ben Franklin recommended to adorn the national emblem.

Turkeys are famous for their enormous, tasty bodies, beautiful fanned tails, and bald heads, covered down to the upper neck and throat wattle with warty protuberances called caruncles, which are also found on the turkey’s snood–that warty lump sticking up above the beak. Blood flows into caruncles, changing the color and turgidity depending on the turkey’s mood. Ogden Nash put it nicely when he wrote, “When is face is apoplectic,/ His harem grows hectic.”

The fine taste of Wild Turkeys comes from their diet, originally of chestnuts, acorns, and other mast, and fruits, berries, and insects. But these omnivores take all manner of food, and now mostly survive on the modern combination of acorns and waste grain.

Chances are good to excellent that Northlanders will see turkeys this week, at least in grocery stores or on people’s tables. About 50 to 55 million farm turkeys are produced annually in Minnesota, which vies with North Carolina and California as the top turkey-growing states in the nation. Store-bought specimens are originally descended from the Mexican race first domesticated near Oaxaca, Mexico. B y the time Columbus arrived, native peoples throughout Mexico and what is now the southwestern U.S. were raising turkeys as domestic birds, while native peoples of the eastern forests continued to hunt wild birds. Spanish conquistadors brought domesticated turkeys to Europe in the early 1600s, and they first appeared on English menus in 1585. In due course, English settlers brought these domestic birds back across the ocean. These domesticated strains may have introduced diseases and genetic weaknesses to eastern Wild Turkeys, but habitat destruction and market hunting were what wiped them out.

Minnesota’s original natural Wild Turkey population may never have been exterminated, because it may never have existed in the first place. In his hefty 1932 tome, The Birds of Minnesota, T.S. Roberts sifted through the evidence and concluded that Wild Turkeys probably never lived in Minnesota before early, failed efforts at “re” introduction. But around the same time, Aldo Leopold found historical evidence that turkeys really had lived in southern Minnesota below a band from Rock County through Mankato to the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin.

Regardless of whether turkeys were here pre-historically or not, they were gone by the thirties. Early efforts to release game farm birds were unsuccessful, but when Robert Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota was published in 1987, there was a fairly-well established population in the southeastern corner of the state. Current reintroduction programs bring in wild-caught rather than game farm birds, and thanks to habitat management, laws preventing pen-reared turkeys from mixing with wild ones, and carefully controlled hunting seasons, these hardier specimens are now reproducing well enough to have sustained a harvest of 2,339 birds this spring. Dick Kimmel, state turkey biologist for the DNR, estimates the current population at about 25,000. People are seeing them in increasing numbers in and around the Twin Cities, especially near Afton and in the Baker Park area. This is the week to be thankful for our good old turkey, as Ben Franklin called it, “a respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”