Animal Tails: Wild about turkeys

Messenger photo by Rick Palsgrove
Pictured here is a Slate turkey, a breed that was fairly common in Ohio in the 19th century. This turkey lives at the Slate Run Living Historical Farm.

Let’s talk turkey.

The bird, known as a symbol of the Thanksgiving holiday and for being the, ahem, "guest of honor" at the holiday meal, is making a comeback in the wild of Ohio.

"In 1850, there was an estimated 1.5 million wild turkeys in Ohio," said Slate Run Metro Parks Naturalist Lauren Metcalf on a presentation about turkeys at  the Groveport Nature Center in Heritage Park on Nov. 16. "Ohio’s woodlands were a great habitat for wild turkeys."

However, Metcalf said, by 1900 all the wild turkeys in Ohio were gone due to over hunting and because agriculture had decimated the thick woodlands where the birds once thrived.

By 1940 turkey hunting was officially banned by the state when it was too late to save the birds in the wild. But, in the 1950s and 1960s, wild turkeys from West Virginia were resettled in Ohio’s remaining woodlands in an effort to restore the population.

"The resettlement was successful," said Metcalf. "By 1975 there were about 1,000 wild turkeys in Ohio and by 2000 there were 250,000. With the increased numbers, turkey hunting season was reinstated in the 1970s."

About wild turkeys

Chestnut Ridge Metro Parks Naturalist Jamie Kidwell said most wild turkeys live in an area extending from the eastern United States to the Great Plains. Male wild turkeys – known as a Jake when young and as a Tom or Gobbler when an adult – live about two years. Females – known as a Jenny when young and a Hen as an adult – live an average of three years. The Hens can lay up to 12 eggs at a time, each of which are about the size of a billiard ball.

"They’re a flock bird and there can be up to 50 in a flock," said Kidwell.

Wild turkeys eat nuts, acorns, seeds, grass, bugs and worms, but, Metcalf said, "They have an underdeveloped sense of smell and taste. They’ll eat just about anything. They’ll kick around the ground foraging and if they see something interesting they eat it."

"I’ve seen them hop up to get a bug on a leaf," added Kidwell.

The wild turkey is a bird that neither migrates or hibernates. Instead it adapts to its environment.

"They puff themselves up for insulation when it gets cold and they also have a layer of fat that helps protect them from the cold," said Kidwell, who also raises turkeys. "My turkeys have a shelter they can use, but all winter long they go outside. They’re rarely in the shelter."

What wild turkeys lack in some senses they make up in others.

"They have a keen eye to detect movement. It’s their biggest line of defense," said Metcalf.

Plus, Metcalf said, wild turkeys can be aggressive as she recalled a situation where a police officer had a confrontation with one of the feisty birds recently near Dublin, Ohio.

"The turkey was hopping back and forth from the road to a road sign," said Metcalf.

"They’re territorial so he thought the sign was his. The police officer came to shoo the turkey away so he wouldn’t get hit by a car, but instead the turkey claimed the police car and hopped up on it. The officer couldn’t get the turkey off the car. Turkeys are strong, they’re one big muscle, and they have big claws. So they can put up a fight. Eventually the officer had to call for back up for help to get the turkey off his car and back into the woods."

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