Field Notes: the Wild Turkey's Unlikely Success

Mar 10, 2015

As the snow begins to melt, many wildlife species may be having an easier time getting around. Today in our monthly natural history series Field Notes, Tom Steele from UW Madison’s Kemp Natural Resources Station takes a look at the unlikely survival skills of the wild turkey, and the story of a successful conservation project that threw researchers for a loop.

Wild turkeys are doing better at surviving northern winters than scientists expected.
Credit Robert Engbert

Perhaps one of Wisconsin’s greatest conservation stories is the successful reintroduction of wild turkeys.

Drive a Northwoods back road any sunny spring morning, and it is not unusual to see 2, 3, even a dozen turkeys or more, busily feeding in the right-of-way – sun glinting off their feathers; bald heads bobbing; bare feet scratching.

What makes this restoration story so remarkable is that 40 years ago there were none. Not a feather, not a wattle, not a cluck or a gobble – not a turkey in the entire state.

Historically, back in the 1800s, wild turkeys were native to Wisconsin. But, a loss of habitat, the spread of disease from domestic turkeys, and unregulated hunting took their toll.

By the year 1881, wild turkeys had disappeared completely from the state.

But that all changed in 1976, almost 100 years later. That’s when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources made a trade with its counterpart agency in Missouri: Some of our ruffed grouse for some of their wild turkeys. 29 turkeys to be exact.

The turkeys were released in Vernon County in southwest Wisconsin. And they thrived. They began to breed and their population took off.

As their numbers grew, the DNR live-trapped over 3,000 birds, relocating them to suitable habitat among 49 southern counties. This was the historical range of wild turkeys in Wisconsin.

Surprisingly, the birds took it upon themselves to spread out even further. It wasn’t long before wild turkeys were appearing north, in Marathon and Langlade and Lincoln counties.

At the time, there was a lot of speculation whether we would ever see wild turkeys here in the Northwoods. The conventional wisdom back then was… “no way.”

There was no scientific evidence, not even anecdotal evidence, to suggest the Northwoods was part of the wild turkey’s ancestral range.

The combination of: long, cold winters, deep snow, and relatively little ag land was thought to be too large a barrier to their successful colonization.

But apparently, the turkeys thought otherwise. Despite limited brood-rearing cover and scant winter food, wild turkeys did expand into the Northwoods. They are now found in every county of Wisconsin.

And that, perhaps, is the second remarkable thing about this story. Wild turkeys not only challenged the harsh conditions of the Northwoods; they also challenged what we knew about them, or at least what we thought we knew.

Today, a group of researchers is rising up to meet that challenge. Chris Pollentier and Scott Hull of the DNR, and Scott Lutz at UW-Madison, have teamed up to unravel the mystery of the Northwoods’ wild turkey.

Later this month, Chris, Scott and Scott, and a crew of research technicians, will fan out across the Northwoods, driving the back roads in search of turkeys.

Their days start well before dawn. With a map beside them, they drive a pre-designated route on the look-out, or I should say on the ear-out, for that distinctive wild turkey call: the gobble.

The gobble has become a familiar spring sound in the Northwoods. That’s the male, the tom, announcing his presence; not just for the researchers but for any and all turkeys within earshot.

He uses that loud, throaty, jumble of sound to stake his territory among any other males who may be in the area. And, also to attract females, hens, to his harem.

When the researchers hear that sound, they note the location. Back at the office, they plot the locations on a computerized map and correlate them with ground conditions such as tree species and density.

Why is this research important?

Because current turkey management guidelines and hunting regulations are based on our knowledge of southern birds. And southern Wisconsin is a world away from the Northwoods in terms of land use, and tree species, and weather and climate.

Ultimately, this local research will improve our understanding about the distribution and the drivers of wild turkeys in the Northwoods.

And that localized knowledge will help guide the future management of this colorful, charismatic and truly unique bird.

It’s just another example of science at work.

In next month’s Field Notes we’ll hear from Tim Kratz from the Center for Limnology’s Trout Lake Station. 

If you have questions about the natural world for UW-Madison field station researchers, contact natalie@wxpr.org to pass your question along.