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Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo
Overview
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

Permanent resident. Introduced native species. Distribution statewide except farthest northern coniferous forest. The Wild Turkey was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

The Wild Turkey ranges from the southern part of the Canadian provinces to the Mexican Yucatan, and it has six subspecies (McRoberts et al. 2014). The two with the largest area are the Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris Vieillot 1817), with a range that covers the entire eastern half of the United States minus Florida; and the Rio Grande Wild Turkey (M. g. intermedia Sennett 1892), which is native to the southern Great Plains states from Texas to Utah. The other subspecies are the Florida Wild Turkey (M. g. osceola Scott 1890); Merriam’s Wild Turkey (M. g. merriami Nelson 1900), which ranges through the high western landscapes from New Mexico to Montana and South Dakota; Gould’s Wild Turkey (M. g. Mexicana Gould 1856), which is native to northern Mexico and southern New Mexico; and the South Mexican Wild Turkey (M. g. gallopavo Linnaeus 1758), formerly from Michoacan east to Veracruz and south to Oaxaca. This subspecies is critically endangered in the wild; it was the original stock of the domestic turkey. Another species of turkey is the Ocellated Turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula. A good map of the subspecies is available from the National Wild Turkey Federation (http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/habitat). Introductions from various subspecies have proliferated throughout North America. The Wild Turkey’s relative abundance varies considerably, but highest densities are in the southern Great Plains (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 7

Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 7/20 by Partners in Flight; a hunted species in Minnesota.

Life History
Migration:

Permanent resident.

Food:

The Wild Turkey is omnivorous, and its diet changes by the season: in spring and summer, insects, seeds, and leafy vegetation; in winter, tree nuts (mast), seeds, and berries. Where crop fields are part of its habitat, it will consume waste grain; it will also eat small amphibians and reptiles.

Nest:

A bowl on the ground in dead leaves, often near the base of trees, under brush piles, or in thick vegetation.

Wild Turkey Wild Turkey. Meleagris gallopavo
© Mike Lentz
See caption below Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Wild Turkey in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

The Wild Turkey is an indigenous North American bird that became known to taxonomists through Linnaeus in 1758. Many Native American tribes in the eastern United States utilized Wild Turkeys for food and probably had semidomesticated flocks. The Pilgrims settling at Plymouth in 1620 encountered many Wild Turkeys in the open forests of eastern Massachusetts, and turkeys became part of their fall Thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoag Indians, a celebratory event that continues to this day. There is a much-told tale that Ben Franklin wanted the Wild Turkey rather than the Bald Eagle to be the emblem on the Great Seal that was adopted by Congress in 1782.

The question of whether the Wild Turkey was a resident in Minnesota in presettlement time has long been disputed. Understandably, there is very little evidence from the 17th to 19th centuries. Roberts thoroughly examined the reports from early explorers: on the Minnesota River by the Major Long expedition with Thomas Say as naturalist (1823) and by Featherstonhaugh (1835), and on the Mississippi River by the Zebulon Pike expedition (1805–1806). Roberts (1932) concluded that “no eye-witness has left a written record so far as can be found and no Minnesota specimen is in existence.” He found writings of Father Hennepin in 1680 that mention Wild Turkey at Lake Pepin and those of Jonathan Carver from the same place in 1766 that were deemed not credible. These 2 records were also considered in error by A. W. Schorger, who looked at the names used in these old accounts (Outardes, Coqs d’Inde, Bustard) and found they were used variously for Sandhill Crane, turkey, or Canada Goose. The latter species was most likely, given the context of the records (Schorger 1942).

A report by Aldo Leopold (1931) is also cited as evidence of the presettlement presence of the turkey in Minnesota: “The ancestral range of eastern wild turkey . . . is believed to have included extreme southern Minnesota” (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2006). However, Leopold’s report devoted only 5 pages (of 299) to the Wild Turkey and stated there were only “three known points of the north boundary” of the original turkey’s range for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. His report also included a map with 2 records: Rock County (1871) and Blue Earth County (1773). The former is attributed to Hatch (1892) and is the same record that Roberts dismissed as “hearsay” and not supported by evidence. The latter is from Peter Pond, an important but semiliterate fur trader and not a naturalist, who made one mention of turkey in his memoir about his travels as a trader (1765–1790) in the upper Great Lakes region (see Gates 1933). It was written in his old age, in New England, where there are turkeys, decades after his trip on the St. Peter River (now Minnesota River). In describing the countryside along the St. Peter River, he wrote, “the Wood & Meadows abundans of Annamels, Sum turkeas, Buffeloes and Verey Plentery, the Common Dear are Plentey, and Larg, the Read and Moose Dear are Plentey hear, Espeshaley the former.” These 2 records from Leopold (1931) do not support evidence of the presettlement presence of the Wild Turkey in Minnesota. To his credit, Leopold wrote that no “single statement in this report is offered as final or sufficient fact.” The conclusion from delving into the documentation of these old records is still that there is “no positive evidence that the species had ever existed in Minnesota” before introductions began (Green and Janssen 1975). Historically in adjacent western states, the Wild Turkey was not native to North Dakota, and in South Dakota was found along the Missouri River north to the Grand River (Tallman et al. 2002).

However, it is reasonable to speculate that turkeys might have occurred in Minnesota, especially since Schorger, researching early Wisconsin records, found them on the Mississippi River southward from Prairie du Chien, and H. R. Schoolcraft recorded them as common there in 1820 (Schorger 1942). Even without 19th-century evidence of occurrence in Minnesota, the habitat appears suitable, and introductions were attempted first in the early 1920s (Roberts 1932), then in 1936 and 1955 to 1959 (Kopischke and Johnson 1973). These releases failed, probably because pen-reared turkeys were used. In 1964, 1965, and 1968 wild-trapped Merriam’s Turkeys, from several central states, were released at the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources determined that the Merriam’s subspecies, a Great Plains endemic, was not well adapted to Minnesota forests, and in the early 1970s birds from the Eastern subspecies (M. g. silvestris) were trapped in Missouri and released in Houston County (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2006). This successful introduction led to permit hunting in the 3 southeastern counties in 1978. Introductions continued through the 2000s in 62 counties in the southern half of the state, in the northwest, and in 3 counties in the northeast: Aitkin, Crow Wing, and Pine. According to a press release from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2017), no birds were released in northern counties after 2009. Introductions and dispersal created turkey populations by 2010 throughout much of the state, except in 5 counties in the northeast. It was assumed that habitat in the mixed coniferous forest with heavy winter snows was not suitable.

The Wild Turkey’s expansion of its population has contradicted that assumption, and the map (Figure 2) from the MNBBA shows breeding birds in southwestern St. Louis County and western Itasca County as well as the established populations in Aitkin and Carlton Counties. Participants in the MNBBA reported 1,384 records for the Wild Turkey. These included 19.9% (952/4,795) of the blocks surveyed and 23.2% (543/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). Nesting was confirmed in 338 blocks in 68 counties. This represents a substantial expansion from the 9 counties with confirmed nesting records reported by Hertzel and Janssen (1998) since 1970.  The Landcover suitability model generated with MNBBA data predicts that the most suitable habitat occurs in pockets distributed throughout the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Province and along the Minnesota River valley (Figure 4). Elsewhere scattered pockets can be found in riparian habitats in southern Minnesota, along the north shore of Lake Superior, and in the more fragmented landscapes of the western and southern regions of the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province.

Data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which surveys winter bird populations (Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union 2017), give some indication of when turkeys arrived and persisted in these counties: Aitkin County (Rice Lake NWR, 2008; peak count 59 in 2012); Carlton County (Cloquet, 2003; peak count 36 in 2010), and south St. Louis County (Fredenberg Township, 2012; peak count 10 in 2014). Additionally, the Minnesota statewide Christmas Bird Count showed a pronounced and steady increase in the number of count circles with turkeys from 1992 (6 counts) through 2015 (60), and the number of birds counted from 1992 (169) through 2015 (3,686). Data from the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s seasonal reports corroborate this trend, with 20 to 30 counties reporting turkeys from 1995 to 2004 and a sharp increase from 2005 to 2015, during which 45 to 65 counties reported detections of Wild Turkeys. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union data also show when turkeys first were reported in northeastern counties: Pine in 2000, Carlton in 2003, and St. Louis in 2014. It will be interesting to see how much farther the Wild Turkey can penetrate the fragmented habitat of woodlands, farms, and rural houses in the mixed coniferous forest zone given their intrinsic fecundity and behavioral adaptations aided by warmer winters.