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Wild turkeys return to Minnesota

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St. Paul Pioneer Press


ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — At 49 million birds a year, Minnesota’s domestic turkey industry is the largest in the nation.

But what about another turkey with even deeper roots in the state? Well, that one’s doing pretty well, too.

By any measure, the wild turkey has made a remarkable comeback in Minnesota, scratching its way back from being killed off here a century ago to becoming a common sight across the southern two-thirds of the state. Drive any highway there, and you might see a flock of wild turkeys along a tree line or pecking for food in an open field.

Domestic turkeys, popular table fare across the state Thanksgiving Day, are raised mostly indoors and out of sight.

Minnesota’s wild turkey renaissance began in 1973, when the state traded Missouri 85 ruffed grouse for 29 wild turkeys and set them loose. Now, an estimated 70,000 wild turkeys are spread across the state. Almost 11,000 were killed by hunters last spring.

All that didn’t happen by accident. With help from the National Wild Turkey Federation, the state Department of Natural Resources has been carefully nurturing the birds.

At the end of the 19th century, things weren’t going well for them.

"Because of unregulated hunting, market hunting, the loss of habitat from the logging industry and development," turkeys were wiped out from much of their ancestral range, said Eric Dunton, wild turkey biologist for the DNR.


Jennifer Snyders, a graduate student in geography at Minnesota State University, Mankato, has been documenting the birds’ ancestral range by reviewing original sources.

"I found six reliable citations, sightings by early explorers who said they physically saw turkeys," said Snyders, adding all of them were along river corridors. "That was where the turkey habitat was."

Beginning in the 1920s, unsuccessful attempts to repopulate them in Minnesota were made by raising birds in captivity and releasing them into the wild. "They didn’t have the survival skills necessary to survive," Dunton said.

By the 1950s and ’60s, a new technique — rocket netting of wild birds — was being employed nationally. With it, wild turkeys could be lured to a spot and a net shot over them, enabling captors to transport the wild birds to new places.

Over a four-year period in the mid-1960s, the state tried to transplant wild turkeys this way, but the effort never took. Twenty-one of those birds were Merriam’s subspecies, a bird more adapted to Western pine forests, and 18 were Eastern subspecies that, for unknown reasons, didn’t do well. In all, there are five subspecies in the United States, with the Eastern turkey covering the largest area.

In 1973, the state brought 29 more Eastern wild turkeys to the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Minnesota.

By the winter of 1976-77, the birds were doing well enough that the state began trapping its own birds and relocating them elsewhere in Minnesota. Since then, 5,000 wild turkeys have been trapped here and relocated, according to Gary Nelson, a DNR wildlife manager who spearheaded that work.

The effort, he said, has been so successful that the state is dropping it because the birds have become established throughout their prime habitats.


The state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, which has helped pay for that work, wants the effort to continue, contending more gains still can be made, according to Tom Glines, the federation’s regional field supervisor.

But Nelson said transplanting birds is expensive and simply isn’t needed any longer. "At some point, the birds are just going to have to take off on their own," he said.

In 1978, the state launched a hunting season for wild turkeys, the largest game bird in North America. That first year, 94 birds were killed. Last spring, the tally reached 10,994. Permit applications over that period have risen from 10,740 to 51,000. Available permits have gone from 420 to 37,992.

And the birds remain a challenge for hunters.

"They may appear dumb, but when you go hunt them, it’s a whole different ballgame," Glines said.

Bill Penning, the DNR’s farmland wildlife program leader, said it’s difficult to get a precise count of wild turkeys in the state. But getting a sense for their range is easier. Every two years, the DNR sends out postcards to deer hunters asking them to record where they saw turkeys.

Not only have the birds flourished wherever they’ve been relocated, they continue to surprise people.

Biologists once believed they couldn’t survive harsh winter conditions in Minnesota, according to Dunton. But they’ve since been documented to survive temperatures of 40 below zero.


"They are amazingly adaptable about where they can live and survive," Dunton said, noting they aren’t tied to a specific food or habitat.

"Turkeys can survive pretty much any Minnesota winter," he said. "The keys are an adequate supply of food and a safe place to roost in the winter. They generally try to roost in trees that give good thermal protection — pine or oak trees."

They also can be entertaining or a bit frightening, depending on your perspective. For instance, they’ve been known to run beside cars for short distances.

Dunton said that’s typically the work of young males. "The thinking is, it’s related to dominance," he said. "They’re trying to set up a territory of their own."


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press,

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