Wild turkeys: A Michigan conservation success story
Get out of doors to experience for yourself the wild turkey, once proposed to Congress for consideration as the National Bird.
As we near the Thanksgiving holiday, many Michigan residents may be getting ready to make a trip to pick up their holiday turkey. This is a time when many begin thinking about which dishes they will prepare as part of their annual Thanksgiving tradition. Take time to head out-of-doors to catch a glimpse of Michigan’s wild turkey, a unique bird that is a must-see in its natural environment. Getting to know this large bird will undoubtedly reveal some of its majestic qualities that Ben Franklin fell in love with, and why he was in favor of making the wild turkey the national symbol of the United States instead of the bald eagle. Whether you have interest in observing it in nature during the remainder of the autumn color season or participating in the fall wild turkey hunting season, which runs from mid-September to mid-November, learning its backstory helps build appreciation for this one-of-a-kind bird.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a ground-dwelling game species native to North America. It is one of the most widely distributed game bird species in Michigan. Wild turkeys can be found in most of the eastern United States including portions of Ontario, pockets of the western United States, and parts of northern Mexico. Its preferred habitat is open fields and woods. It locates its nests along the ground. Wild turkeys are adept at moving from grasslands and forest clearings in the summer to more covered areas such as mast producing trees in the winter. Interestingly, despite its large size, the wild turkey is a surprisingly powerful flyer. Over short distances, it can reach speeds of up to 55 mph. Wild turkeys often fly hard and fast to travel up through the treetops, after which they set their wings and glide back to the ground.
The wild turkey can now be found in every county of the Lower Peninsula, plus several Upper Peninsula areas. However, in the past, the distribution of the wild turkey, a full-time resident of Michigan, has not been as expansive as it is today. In fact, wild turkeys were thought to have all but disappeared from Michigan by 1900 due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Between 1919 and late 1983, many population re-establishment efforts were carried out in Michigan. As part of these efforts, turkeys were taken from Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Missouri as part of these efforts. Some Michigan birds were even moved from southern to northern locations.
Key to these more recent reintroduction efforts involves a concerted effort to provide year-round food and cover for the birds. Normally, their diet consists of insects, grasses, nuts and berries. In Michigan, the key to wild turkey winter survival where snowfall levels are higher has been due to the efforts of private-land management. For a number of years, MDNR wildlife biologists have been working with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to help private land owners plant winter turkey food plots (corn or other grains and crop mixes) that can withstand winter conditions and provide a source of food that is readily available for wild turkeys above the snow. Efforts to help the wild turkey over the winter have in turn led to a huge spring 2013 wild turkey hunting season where over 300,000 birds were harvested. The NWTF also has a Conservation Seed Program in which outdated seed from large seed companies is distributed to members. MDNR wildlife biologists have also worked private land owners in coordination with the Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association and the U.S. Forest Service on this program. The success of this program has led to wild turkey population in Michigan that can support two hunting seasons (fall and spring).
For more natural history information, visit the MDNR wild turkey web site. The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology also has two great sources of information, the Animal Diversity Web and the BioKIDS Critter Catalog.