By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
The day I saw my first badger was a highlight in my naturalist life, but was exciting for another reason. That same evening, I observed a turkey and four of its young crossing the road in front of me. Wild turkeys have been living in the vicinity of my house for a few years now and almost every summer I get the pleasure of seeing their large families. I continue to monitor in my phenology observation journal any observations, and I am keeping track of their success in this small northwest corner of the state. Successful restoration of wild turkeys has happened in Wisconsin, and it is surprising to see how well they seem to be doing in our region.
The turkeys around my house have plenty of food sources available to them. Bordering an active farm means the turkeys have access to corn and plant remains in cow manure. They can seek out unharvested crops, alfalfa, or grain waste. They also have access to native cherries, blackberries, raspberries, red elderberry, acorns, and seeds from the area’s maple, pine, spruce, balsam fir, and beech. Turkeys can also choose to eat catkins, buds, and leaves from the birch, hazelnut, ferns, strawberries, wintergreen, partridgeberry, clubmosses, trailing arbutus, bunchberry, and other ground-layer plants and grasses. There are plenty of grasshoppers, earthworms, grubs, leafhoppers, beetles, or crickets on which they can feed. These food sources meet the needs of what most Wisconsin turkeys seem to do well with: a fifty-fifty mix of oak woodland and agriculture. This is just part of their habitat, however.
Turkeys roost in trees overnight as protection from predators. Areas with dense cover keep them from wind or inclement weather. Trees with trunks about a minimum of twelve inches in diameter with horizontal branches are best, and in winter, turkeys will roost in conifers to better insulate them from cold weather. Denser understory vegetation provides safer nesting cover during the breeding season. Areas with insects or other protein sources are preferred breeding areas as turkey young eat one-fifth of their body weight each day. The home range of turkeys can vary from 135 to 500 acres depending on the time of year and availability of food and cover. Although turkeys are very adaptable, research suggests that they do better when food, roosting sites, and nesting sites are located close together.
Why do turkeys seem to be doing so well in northwestern Wisconsin? When outdoor temperatures go below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a turkey’s metabolic rate speeds up, allowing them to survive colder temperatures only if they have enough food. Snow with a depth of more than twelve inches also hampers their walking ability and opportunities to find food. The northwestern part of our state has an average of forty to fifty days of twelve or more inches of snow, usually limiting turkey survival rates. Our recent warm winters must be contributing to their success.
Historically, turkeys were not documented except in the very southern parts of the state. In the 1970’s, turkeys were brought from Missouri to several sites throughout the southern part of the state, with more limited releases north of the ten-inch snow line. It is believed that the populations in this area are probably “immigrants” as those northern populations survived many of our warmer winters and dispersed into our area.
It is exciting to see the male turkeys showing their beautiful strut in the spring, or to see the young trailing behind their parent. I continue the search around my house for turkeys – their feathers, tracks, or observations I occasionally enjoy, and my next goal is to hear them gobble! If you have your own turkey story to share, please Email the Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.