- Jim Chamberlin
The Reintroduction of Turkeys in Minnesota
For the last few months we’ve had a large flock of wild turkeys hanging out on our personal farm east of Brainerd, in the woods and our big field. It’s a flock of at least three mature hens and their young, maybe thirty birds in all. They spend a fair amount of time in our neglected asparagus patch or in the cover crop that was planted following potatoes. We hope they’re eating bugs and weed seeds, while helping to fertilize the soil. The first time we saw turkeys on our property was ten to fifteen years ago, two hens and a tom that we spotted several times over a few months. It seems they come and visit for a while - two or three months - then move on not to return for some time.
While historically native to southern Minnesota, most research suggests that prior to European colonization wild turkeys were rare in central and northern Minnesota, with populations establishing in these areas during extended years of mild winters and sharp declines during years of cold winters with heavy snowfall. The last evidence of wild turkeys in southern Minnesota was in the 1920s, with declining populations starting in the 1830s and 40s due to over-hunting, habitat loss, and an overall lack of conservation ethic.
With the demise of wild turkeys, farmers began to raise them, eventually leading to the white domestic turkey that you find in your grocers’ freezer. The first effort to reintroduce wild turkeys to Minnesota was from 1971 to 1973 when 29 turkeys, trapped in Missouri, were released in Houston County, the most southeasterly county in the state. With additional releases and conservation efforts, and a changing climate, the population has grown to approximately 70,000 birds in the state. Since 2012, between 10,000 and 12,000 birds have been harvested annually by Minnesota hunters.
Research suggests that wild turkeys are seldom a problem in agricultural fields and could serve a beneficial role in eating bugs and weed seed. They can become habituated to people and become aggressive, especially in suburban and urban areas. It is recommended that people don’t feed wild turkeys and keep other types of bird feeders where turkeys can’t access them. Don’t allow turkeys to become comfortable in the presence of people and aggressively chase them from your residence. If you’re experiencing problems, or have questions, contact your nearest DNR wildlife office.
As a steward of the land, I’m constantly impressed by the power of nature to heal. Though many factors are at play in the amazingly successful re(?)-introduction of wild turkeys into Minnesota, their ability to occupy a niche on the landscape is undeniable. In the book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote, “We reached the old wolf just in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves meant hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
As conservationists we’ve seen many successes, from the recovery of the Bald Eagle and Osprey, to the return of Sandhill Cranes, Timber Wolves, and Trumpeter Swans. We know from history without the wise management of our natural resources, they are often exploited and degraded. We also understand that by working with nature, by providing habitat and not letting wildlife get habituated to easy food and prey, they can recover and thrive.