Michigan’s Comeback Kid: The Wild Turkey
Seeing wild turkeys along the side of the road or maybe even pecking their way through your yard is common enough these days, but it wasn’t also that way.
Today, the DNR estimates there are more than six million turkeys in the United States, a far cry from 50 years ago when seeing or hearing one was rare.
In Michigan in the early 1800s, an estimated 94,000 turkeys plentifully populated the territory. As the region developed into a state, people flocked to its natural resources and industrialization. Wild turkeys rely on mature hardwood and conifer forests interspersed with meadows. The deforestation of Michigan’s forests by its lumber empire removed the high trees turkeys use for cover and roost at night. By the 1950s, the wild turkeys had disappeared due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.
But today, an estimated 200,000 wild turkeys inhabit Michigan thanks to the efforts of conservationists over the last 70 years. The state ranks sixth nationally for the number of turkey hunters with high success and satisfaction rates.
“We’ve gone from extirpation of all wild turkeys in Michigan to today we have over 200,000 birds and you can hunt turkeys in every county in the state,” says Al Stewart, who recently retired from wildlife management for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 20 of those years as the DNR’s upland game bird specialist.
The wild turkey’s success isn’t all artificial. The game bird is known for its intelligence and savvy. Benjamin Franklin praised the canny bird. It is a myth, however, that Ben Franklin suggested the wild turkey be used to symbolize our nation instead of the bald eagle.
The idea that Franklin preferred the turkey comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah Bache on January 26, 1784. The letter criticizes the Society of the Cincinnati. Franklin’s criticism extends into their crest, which features a bald eagle. He disparages the bald eagle as a “Bird of bad moral Character” for its habit of stealing smaller birds’ food. He takes a jab at the eagle crest, saying it looks more like a turkey, and goes on to tongue-in-cheek extol the turkey’s virtues over that of the bald eagle.
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and 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.”
In the 1950s, the first attempts to restore the turkey population in Michigan using hatchery programs failed. The turkeys behaved like domesticated birds and were vulnerable to disease, weather, and predators. The Michigan Dept of Conservation (now DNR) then purchased 50 wild turkeys from Pennsylvania and released them on the west side of the state.
The turkey population increased enough to reinstate licensed hunting in 1965, and efforts to spread them throughout the state continued. In the 1980s, turkeys were brought in from other parts of the Midwest and released in Southern Michigan. The offspring of these flocks were then trapped and relocated to other parts of the state.
The effort really took flight when the MDNR began focusing on habitat with projects like Michigan’s Turkey Tracts, public hunting areas with habitats intensively managed for turkeys.
“The program highlights areas of public land where the habitat has been intentionally managed for wild turkeys, creating great hunting conditions for new or seasoned hunters,” says Adam Bump, the DNR’s current upland game bird specialist.
Counterintuitively, hunters have financed much of the turkey’s comeback. The MDNR reports, “Revenue to fund wild turkey management efforts – for the past several decades, now and into the future – comes directly from the sale of hunting licenses and equipment.”
The wild turkey is the ancestor of the domesticated turkey we are familiar with at the Thanksgiving table. Wild turkeys originated in Mexico, and domestication began there. The Conquistadors brought the birds back to Spain, spreading them to the rest of Europe. Early colonists brought barnyard turkeys with them when settling in the new world, unaware that their wild cousins had by now spread from Mexico and inhabited the nearby forests.
Earlier this year, the National Wild Turkey Federation, at its annual Convention and Sport Show in Nashville, presented the Michigan DNR with its Land Stewardship Award, which honors companies and/or government agencies that promote wildlife habitat management.
So, the next time you see a wild turkey on the side of the road or pecking its way through your grass, keep in mind you’re seeing one of Michigan’s great comeback stories.
Photos courtesy of MDNR