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More than a meal: Wild turkeys are a conservation success story

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 22, 2012 - Legend has it that the turkey was founding father Benjamin Franklin’s preference for our national bird. In a letter to his daughter, he derided the bald eagle as “of bad moral Character” and praised the turkey as “withal a true original Native of America. ... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

He was certainly right about the native part, as turkeys originated in North America. And during the spring mating season, the males are perhaps a little vain and silly.

But the courageous part, according to resource scientist Jason Isabelle of the Missouri Department of Conservation, was probably wishful thinking on Franklin’s part. Turkeys are “incredibly cautious.” They are not fighters — their instinct is flight. That flight instinct is what makes them so challenging to hunt because if they sense any threat they will just run or fly away. Since they can move on the ground at about 12 mph, they make it hard for the hunter to get off a shot. They can also fly for short distances, mainly to the trees where they roost at night.

A host of enemies

Turkeys have good reason to be cautious because predators abound. Coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and even snakes (who eat the eggs) threaten their survival.

According to Isabelle, mostly because of their daytime ground-dwelling habits, any turkey that hatches out of an egg has only about a 40 percent chance of surviving its first month. The hen will make her nest on the ground in thick vegetation. She will lay one egg a day for about 10 days and then has to sit on the nest for 28 days. Hatchlings, called poults, do not fly at first and are attractive to both winged and legged predators.

Poults are also susceptible to weather and can die of hypothermia in heavy rain. In fact, the urban legend that turkeys can drown by trying to catch raindrops in their beaks may stem from this fact, theorizes Erin Shank, urban wildlife biologist, with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Turkey hens won’t defend their nests. If a coyote comes hunting, the hen will try to run or fly away. Sometimes the predator will get both eggs and the egg layer, but if the hen survives she may nest a second time.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, even the skittish turkey description. Shank tells of a call to south St. Louis County where an exceptionally bold young male would chase children as they got off their school bus. He would advance and retreat, advance and retreat. “I saw it myself,” she says. She suspects this bird had been fed at somebody’s back door.

Turkey populations restored

Nowadays turkeys are more common in urban areas. Flocks have been seen in the city's Central West End, and a large number live in Calvary Cemetery. Today wild turkeys number 300,000 to 500,000 statewide, depending upon the season.

It was not always so. Even though the state ended turkey-hunting season in 1938, Missouri had only about 3,000 turkeys in remote Ozark woods by the 1950s. Hunters had over-harvested the birds. Destruction of habitat, as woods were burned or logged and turned into pasture, also contributed to the their low numbers.

The Department of Conservation decided to find out if habitat improvement could increase turkey numbers. Wild turkeys could be bred on farms, but then they did not have the survival skills to make it in the wild. The department bought an 11,000-acre tract, Peck Ranch, in the southern Ozarks and on that property it protected the birds and provided food and cover. From 1951 to 1957 the Peck Ranch turkey population increased from 9 to 100.

With 100 birds, it seemed feasible to try to restore wild turkeys to other parts of the state where they had once flourished. An ingenious trapping method was devised, and groups of turkeys with a ratio of two hens to each Tom could be distributed.

New habitats would need to be cultivated in the same manner as at Peck Ranch. The Conservation Department started an outreach program to persuade the people in a targeted area to do such things as leave some grain in the field, leave some cover and report poaching. Missourians responded enthusiastically. The current wild turkey numbers speak for the degree of enthusiasm.

Hunting began again on a limited basis in 1960, stirring up renewed excitement about the wild turkey. Today there are both spring and autumn hunting seasons; each of Missouri’s 114 counties has areas where hunting is permitted.

Wildlife biologists once thought turkeys could thrive only in wooded areas, but research has shown they are generalists. They like acorns, but they also like beans, corn and other vegetable. Poults live mainly on insects. The ideal turkey habitat seems to be 50 percent woods and 50 percent open fields.

Citizens involved in wildlife restoration

The continuing efforts to restore habitats and animal populations owe a great deal to the value Missouri voters have placed on conservation.

In 1976 voters passed a 1/8 cent sales tax solely for conservation. The money been used to purchase new natural areas, for managing over a million acres of public land, for research, education and outreach. Private Land Services, a division of the Department of Conservation, works with landowners to to manage their property and meet wildlife habitat goals. Missouri is one of only three states to have such a dedicated tax. Arkansas and Minnesota are the others.

Isabelle, the Conservation Department scientist, says it’s likely he will have a wild turkey on his table at Thanksgiving. They are delicious, he says, although a bit different in flavor from domestic birds. Recipes for cooking a wild turkey can be found in the publication, Cooking Wild in Missouri.

Jo Seltzer

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