MARSHALL — While most people are familiar with the turkey being symbolic to the Thanksgiving celebration, not everyone knows that the large bird was nearly chosen as the national bird.
In 1782, the turkey lost by a single vote to the bald eagle to become the national bird.
As such, the native wild turkey has become a favorite game bird in America and especially, in Minnesota.
“In southwest Minnesota, we don’t have a great way to keep doing population surveys, but they seem to be holding their own or slightly increasing,” Marshall Area Wildlife Manager Wendy Krueger said. “Garvin Park has a pretty good population and they’re often found along our river corridors. They like wooded patches or those spots where there are hardwood trees to perch in.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the restoration of the wild turkey — Meleagris gallopavo — over the past 25 years is one of Minnesota’s greatest conservation success stories. Considered rare at one point, wild turkey are now becoming a common sight throughout southern and western parts of the state. The population of wild turkeys grew from just a few birds in the early 1970s to more than 70,000 today.
According to Krueger, Minnesota first tried releasing game farm birds in 1926, with 250 birds in the southeast part of the state, but the effort failed. Then between 1964 and 1968, 39 wild birds from Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota, were released. Between 1971-1973, 30 more wild turkeys were released from Missouri, into Houston County.
“Prior to releases, wild turkeys were last reported in this area in the late 1800s,” Krueger said. “Starting in 1976, wild turkeys were trapped in southeast Minnesota and released elsewhere in the state. Their population is slowly expanding from where we released them, so we’re seeing them show up in more spots than the previous 10 years.”
Just over a decade ago, Minnesota ended its trap and transport effort.
“We don’t have a ton of turkeys around here in southwest Minnesota compared to the southeast part of the state, which is where the main population is,” Krueger said. “We don’t do the trap and transport anymore, where the wild birds are trapped in the southeast and then transported elsewhere to expand their population. They’d do that in the winter when they were flocked up.”
The first wild turkey season took place in 1978.
“We’ve been on an upward trend since then,” Krueger said. “The wild turkeys have done really well. They’ve adapted well.”
Wild turkeys range in size form 10 to 25 pounds. Males are mostly dark brown and black, with a red head, neck and wattle, while hens are brownish gray. Krueger calls the turkeys opportunistic feeders.
“In the winter, they’ll feed on berries, acorns and waste grain,” she said. “When they have their young in the spring and throughout summer, they’re going to be eating bugs. A lot of times, people will see them out in their fields and think they’re maybe doing damage, but they’re most likely out there eating bugs.”
Like pheasants, turkeys have gizzards and need grit.
“In the farm country here, they like grain,” Krueger said. “In our wildlife areas, we leave standing food plots so that turkeys, deer, pheasants and all those critters will take advantage of that.”
While hunters are potentially the wild turkey’s biggest predator, they are also vulnerable to coyotes, foxes, eagles and great-horned owls.
“Great-horned owls will smack the heads of turkeys,” Krueger said. “They have that bald head and you’d be surprised how many owls will kill them and feed on them. Coyotes might get a few, too, maybe more so during the nesting season when a hen is on the nest. They might get the young ones, but usually an adult turkey can hold their own against coyotes. The toms have those spurs.”
A lot of people don’t realize it, but turkeys can fly. They typically roost in trees at night.
“It takes them awhile to get airborne sometimes, but they can fly,” Krueger said. “I’ve been pheasant hunting before and the dogs have actually flushed a turkey instead of a pheasant. It’s kind of startling.”
In 2017, 27,315 regular wild turkey permits were issued for the spring hunt. The total harvest was 11,854. The regular gun harvest was 8,021, marking a 29.4 percent success rate.
Southwest Minnesota is categorized as the 504 permit area. In 2017, southwest Minnesota wild turkey hunters bagged 311 birds. With 725 regular permits issues, it amounted to a 25 percent success rate.
Fall hunting, which is basically the month of October, is not as popular.
“Fall participation is really low because there are so many other things to do in the fall,” Krueger said. “Most hunters seem to find the spring more fun. Then you’re calling in the toms, whereas in the fall, it’s not their breeding season, so it’s just if you see one.”
The spring season typically begins in the middle of April and runs through May.
“You have to pick the time zones unless you’re an archery hunter,” Krueger said. “In the spring, it’s toms only. In the fall, you can buy a license over-the-counter and it can be for a tom or a hen.”