by Janice Welsh
"What a turkey!" you say. What are you talking about when you call something a turkey? Something that's stupid or clumsy or awkward?
If that's what you mean, then you couldn't be talking about Minnesota's wild turkey. Our wild turkey is a smart bird. It flies with a powerful beat of its wings. It sneaks through the woods with barely a sound.
Today there are more wild turkeys in Minnesota than there have been in at least 100 years. Most live in southern Minnesota.
The eastern wild turkey is Minnesota's largest game bird. A game bird is one that people may hunt and eat.
We have many names for turkeys. A full-grown male turkey is called a tom. An adult female is a hen. Young males are called jakes, and young females jennies. Chicks are called poults.
Toms can weigh more than 20 pounds. Hens weigh 8 to 10 pounds.
Even though turkeys are big, they can fly and escape great horned owls and other predators.
Wild turkeys live in hardwood forests near farm fields. Turkeys feed on insects and young plants in the spring and summer. In the fall they eat lots of acorns and hickory nuts, called mast, so they can build up a layer of fat to help them survive winter's cold. Turkeys do not migrate south for the winter. They can find winter food by going to farm fields and eating corn and grain leftover from the fall harvest.
In the spring, as the days grow longer, wild turkeys begin courtship and breeding. Toms gobble to declare their breeding territory and to find a mate. They gobble when they hear another tom gobbling, and they gobble to the yelping and clucking of hens.
The hen nests on the ground in April. A hen sits on the eggs to keep them warm. After about 28 days, the poults hatch.
If predators eat the eggs, or if cold weather keeps the eggs from hatching, a hen will lay a second clutch. But she raises only one brood of poults each year.
The poults grow fast, eating protein-rich insects. By the fall, young turkeys weigh 6 to 8 pounds. Then several hens and their broods join together in large flocks. Toms and jakes form their own flocks.
As Europeans settled America, wild turkeys vanished from many places,including the woods of southern Minnesota. Pioneers probably shot too many turkeys. And wild turkeys lost their food and shelter as the settlers cut down the forests to get logs and firewood and to clear fields for farming. By the 1880s wild turkeys no longer lived in Minnesota.
Wild turkeys survived in some places, such as the rugged hills of Missouri, where not many people lived. In the 1970s the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources traded walleyes, ruffed grouse, prairie chickens, and Hungarian partridge to Missouri and other states for turkeys.
Wildlife biologists released the birds in Minnesota's woods. Those turkeys produced young turkeys. By 1978 Minnesota had enough wild turkeys to begin to hunt a few without danger that they all would disappear.
To get a tom close to you, you must sit very still for a long time -- sometimes for hours. And you must try to trick the tom into thinking you are a hen. To do this, you use a call that mimics a hen's call. Hens make many calls - including a yelp and a cluck. A yelp says, "I'm here, and everything's okay." A cluck means, "I'd like to get together."
A tom answers a hen's call by gobbling. Then it moves slowly and cautiously toward the hen.
A person must practice to learn how fast to call and when to call like a hen. Sometimes the toms are so eager to find a hen that they will gobble at any loud noise, including owls hooting and car doors slamming.
Wild turkeys have excellent eyesight. Like most birds with colored feathers, they see color well. To keep turkeys from seeing them, hunters must disguise themselves to look like they are part of the forest. They wear camouflaged hats, jackets, and pants. They also paint or cover their faces and hands to fool the turkeys.
A colorful wild turkey with its tail feathers fanned is the symbol of our national Thanksgiving holiday. Indians introduced European settlers to this tasty bird in colonial times.
Indians in Virginia, North Carolina, Mexico, and the southwestern United States first tamed and kept wild turkeys. They used the turkey's wing feathers to feather their arrows. They used the spurs on the bird's feet as arrow tips. They made turkey bones into awls, spoons, and other tools, and wove turkey feathers into their cloth. And, of course, they ate turkey eggs and meat.
The store-bought turkey on your Thanksgiving table is a domesticated (tame) version of the wild turkey. The biggest difference in the birds is the color. Wild turkeys are shiny black with streaks of gold and orange. Domestic turkeys were bred to be white. When the turkeys are plucked, small pin feathers sometimes are missed. White feathers left on a table turkey do not show as much as black feathers would.
Another difference is size. The average domestic turkey weighs about 12 pounds. The average wild tom turkey weighs 20 pounds.
After generations of captive breeding, domestic turkeys cannot fly, and they aren't smart enough to avoid predators.
Would you like to learn more about wild turkeys? The Department of Natural Resources presents turkey hunting clinics around the state in March. To find out about the clinic nearest you, call the DNR Information Center (651-296-6157 or 888-646-6367) in mid-February.
Janice Welsh, who wrote the story, runs the DNR's Project WILD, a wildlife education program for schools.
A complete copy of the article can be found in the November-December 1995 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.