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Have you seen a wild turkey?

February 17, 2013
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

I just returned from the Red Wing Stoneware Collectors Society Midwinter convention in Des Moines this past weekend. Several days spent looking at rooms and rooms of crocks, jugs and pottery made by the factories in Red Wing Minnesota from the late 1870s to the 1960s. There are people from California to New York that travel to this gathering. But besides stoneware, the discussions eventually turn to other interests, as we sit and catch up with people we haven't seen for a year.

I had many folks ask me where the deer were as they had driven from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, etc. I told them that many parts of Iowa now had deer populations at their lowest numbers in nearly 20 years. I didn't get into the politics that appears to be a part of the equation. More than one did mention the turkeys that they had seen as they traveled Iowa roads.

I told them that in Grundy County, I was seeing more turkeys the past two years. After I returned from the meetings, I decided to take a closer look at wild turkeys. Here's a brief history.

Wild turkeys numbered in the millions nationwide when the first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock and provided a readily available source of food for the first Thanksgiving table. Turkey populations were unable to withstand uncontrolled hunting pressures during European settlement. By 1920, approximately 250,000 eastern wild turkeys remained in the United States, occupying just 12% of their former range. Turkeys were virtually extirpated from Iowa by 1900; the last verified sighting was made in Lucas County in 1910. Turkey restoration programs brought the wild turkey back from what many considered inevitable extinction. Today, there are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys in all the states except Alaska!

Turkeys from southern Iowa were originally re-introduced from Missouri in the mid 1960's. At that time, an aggressive restoration program using wild trapped turkeys from Missouri and state forests, resulted in transplanting 3,523 Eastern wild turkeys to 86 different counties between 1965 and 2001. Eastern turkeys adapted so well to habitat conditions in Iowa that by 1980 the DNR could start trading Iowa turkeys for other extirpated wildlife re-introduction efforts. From 1980-2001, 7,501 Iowa turkeys had been traded for prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, river otters, sharp-tailed grouse, and over 3.2 million dollars to purchase Iowa habitat with 11 states and 1 Canadian province.

It sounds from what I've reported, that we should be overrun with wild turkeys and a few parts of Iowa might sometimes seem that way, but there are things that limit turkey numbers. In Grundy County, for example, it has been the apparent lack of forested area that limits the numbers. Early research indicated that areas with a 50:50 ratio of forest with properly managed non-forested habitats was ideal turkey range, and a minimum of 1,000 acres of timber is ideal to allow a turkey population to thrive.

Since the restoration of wild turkeys to Iowa, turkeys have been found in small 2-3 acre wood lots, much to surprise of wildlife managers. Well, we have 2-3 acre wood lots in the county, but we are far away from the 1,000 acre forest-type areas. Those turkeys that we do see are likely following the Blackhawk Creek and Wolf Creek corridors from the Cedar River. In the middle of summer I can see how corn fields could provide the cover necessary to do that, but these turkeys are left high and dry come fall when the crops disappear. Over the years, I have seen a few turkeys in and around some of our county parks and wildlife areas. Turkey sightings have been reported in the Wolf Creek Park area since the 1980's, but in the last couple of years, I would almost say we have had a turkey explosion. Seeing a dozen turkeys where I used to see an occasional lone bird seems like an explosion, but it is far from a number where we begin to promote the hunting of the population.

Given our limited habitat, I hesitate to say we will ever be in that situation. However, I have been in the business too long and been surprised too many times over the last 33 years to use the word never when it comes to wildlife. What we have seen for turkeys along the Wolf Creek and Black Hawk Creek corridors may be a short-lived example of perfect winter and spring conditions favoring a few nest attempts. Still, when you begin to take an optimistic look at things, a few hens producing broods last year translates in their offspring and their offspring's offspring providing us with more and more turkey sightings in the next few years. I can only hope.



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