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COLUMN: Wild turkeys once again abundant in Minnesota

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- It's turkey time in Minnesota. Thousands of hunters began "flocking" to the woods once again beginning on April 13 to participate in a pastime that many call an addiction.

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DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- It’s turkey time in Minnesota. Thousands of hunters began “flocking” to the woods once again beginning on April 13 to participate in a pastime that many call an addiction.

My introduction to turkey hunting was in 2010 at an event called “Teens Meet Toms”. Coordinated by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and Minnesota DNR’s Hunter Recruitment and Retention Program, the partnership works to introduce boys and girls to turkey hunting by teaming them and their guardians with experienced turkey hunters hunting on private lands throughout Minnesota’s bountiful turkey range. It was during this event inside the cramped quarters of a hunting blind that I watched my young son bag his first bird - a giant tom.

And since then, including my involvement in releasing 36 wild turkeys in northern Clearwater County in 2008, I’ve found myself drawn more than ever to this remarkable bird. In fact, just a couple of years ago on a warm early May morning I hunted turkeys on the very property northwest of Bagley where DNR and NWTF members and volunteers released twenty of that original group of birds.

Toms, or gobblers as they are also called, are the males of the species and grow larger than hens. Juvenile males are called jakes. Depending on the subspecies (there are five in North America) wild turkeys can attain weights of well over 20 pounds and body lengths of up to four feet. Wingspans range from 50 to 60 inches. For as large as they are, wild turkeys are strong and adept flyers and will readily take flight if needed, but more often prefer walking or running to flying.

The wattles and snoods on the throats and heads of gobblers are colored brilliant blue and red, and turn especially bright during courtship or when agitated. Long, hair-like tufts of feathers called beards, while also growing on hens occasionally, are much longer on gobblers, especially older birds. Thorn-like growths, called spurs, growing on the backs of gobblers’ legs, increase in length as a tom ages. The spurs are often used as weapons in defending themselves from predators and fights with other turkeys.

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Black-tipped, iridescent body feathers give the gobbler a darker appearance than female birds. Hens’ feathers are buff-tipped, giving them an overall brown appearance. This difference is important since it is the hen that incubates the eggs and cares for the young. Cryptic coloration is needed to escape the notice of mammalian and avian predators.

The well-recognized display that a tom performs - the puffed out feathers, the fanned out tail, and the gobbling vocalizations - serve a purpose of course. During the spring breeding season adult gobblers compete with other males for the attention of hens. Toms will establish “strutting zones” and will aggressively defend these areas from other toms. Though a true woodland bird, during the mating season these displays are performed where they can be easily seen, such as forested openings, field edges, and along trails.

The wild turkey capture and release program occurred in Minnesota over a period of time spanning about 40 years. From the release of just 29 birds in the early 1970s in Houston County, the turkey population has grown to tens of thousands of birds today from southeast Minnesota to Detroit Lakes and north to Crookston, Thief River Falls, and Kittson County. Population densities are highest in the southeast, but good numbers exist in the central part of the state as well as parts of northeast Minnesota, too. In essence, wild turkeys exist nearly everywhere in Minnesota and the expansion of turkey range continues to steadily increase throughout the Northland.

Some of this expansion has occurred with little help from wildlife managers. It seems that wild turkeys are “rewriting the book” on habitat requirements and are finding niches in places that were formerly considered unsuitable. There are now well established wild turkey populations nearly everywhere in Minnesota save for the North Shore and the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. Even so, basic habitat required for wild turkey survival is generally mature hardwood forests interspersed with both cropland and non-agricultural openings. Acorns are a favorite food, as are other nuts, berries, seeds, crops, and insects.

Turkeys were hunted extensively when the first Europeans arrived in North America. Native Americans hunted the turkey irregularly and used the feathers for clothing and weapon adornment. To some tribes, it was taboo to kill a turkey. But to early settlers turkeys were important food sources.

From the book Feathers from the Prairie, a passage written by Alexander Henry traveling from his Pembina, North Dakota fur post on July 21, 1806 to visit the Mandan Indians on the Missouri River reads:

“One of the natives had a turkey-cock’s tail, great numbers of which they got from the Schians [Cheyennes]; and which serve them as fans; this was a new and fresh one, of beautiful hue. I gave him five rounds of ammunition for it, with which he appeared well satisfied, and left me, but soon returned with the ammunition, and demanded the tail.” Obviously, the native trader had second thoughts and wanted the prized possession back.

Thanks to ambitious efforts to re-establish wild turkeys throughout their historic range and in some cases places they’ve never been, turkeys are abundant in Minnesota. So abundant that hunting seasons are held in both the spring and the fall.

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Indeed, wild and free ranging wild turkeys, appearing now throughout most of Minnesota, are here to see and hear as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Editor's note: Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Related Topics: WILDLIFEHUNTINGFARMINGCROPSBLANE KLEMEK
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