Wild Turkey call our area home
By Kate Greenway
On Canadian or American Thanksgiving many of us gorged ourselves on a turkey dinner with all the fixin’s. Apparently some residents don’t realize their original cousins, the wild turkey, live right in our own backyard!
Wild turkeys are native to North America, the most common subspecies being the eastern turkey that inhabits our area. They were once abundant, but by the early 1900’s through the usual folly of mankind, they had been hunted heavily, almost to extinction, and much of their range here in Southern Ontario, as elsewhere, was eliminated due to logging and the clearing of forests for agriculture. Reintroduction programs began in the 1940’s in the U.S.; later biologists in Canada tried unsuccessfully to introduce captivity-raised birds into the wild. In the early to mid-1980s, the province embarked on a restoration program partnering with several Canadian environmental groups and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, using contributions of wild turkeys from the U.S. In multiple exchanges over a series of years Ontario provided river otters to Missouri and Nebraska, gray partridge to New York and moose to Michigan in exchange for birds. Approximately 4,400 wild turkeys were released at 275 sites across Ontario (according to MNR in 2007 the last release in our ‘wildlife management unit,’ a section that stretches from Lake Simcoe south to Stouffville and east to Uxbridge, was in the winter of 2002 of 33 birds). The turkey population now has exceeded the numbers projected by the Ontario Wild Turkey Management Plan, has re-established its former range, even expanding it due to climate change as far north as Parry Sound, and is considered one of the most successful wildlife restocking programs in Canadian history! The province wide estimate is a population of 100,000, and “that trend is stable or increasing,” says John Almond, Area Supervisor for the Aurora District Ministry of Natural Resources. The objectives for the wild turkey program have shifted now from restoration to sustainable management, with a spring hunt of males only, and in some areas, an additional fall hunt.
Why should we care? Wild turkeys have been restored as an important part of bio-diversity that existed in pre-settlement Ontario. In my own experience fall and winter are even better times to spot flocks, and Mr. Almond confirms that this is when family groups congregate, and you might see a flock of up to 150 birds! They are semi frequent visitors to backyards between Aurora Rd and Lakeshore, and apparently Rick Wigmore came across a flock just the other day on the road itself, (as he says, another reason to drive carefully and obey the speed limits, for their sake, and yours).
Since we share the environment, here are a few things to know about wild turkeys. (And if you want to know more, there are several groups you can glean information from, such as the Ontario Wild Turkey Working Group and the National Wild Turkey Federation – and no, I am not making that up!)
They congregate in small, usually single sex flocks, in woodlands, forest clearings meadows, and swamps. A varied habitat of both open and covered area is essential for wild turkey survival, which need open areas for feeding, mating and habitat, and they use forested areas as cover from predators and for roosting in trees at night. During mating season in spring nests are built in shallow depressions in the ground, and it is not uncommon for the female to raise a brood of 12 – 15 poults. Interestingly, the young, almost right after hatching, leave the nest and feed themselves. Wild turkeys do not hibernate or fly south, thus they forage for food year round and their diet changes depending on what’s available. They are omnivores, consuming mostly seeds, mast and grasses but also berries, nuts, vines and flowers, insects, small frogs and lizards, slugs and snails.
Apparently they have very good hearing, have even better eyesight than humans during the day and can see in colour, but have poor eyesight at night. They can run at speeds up to 40 km/hr.; yes, and they can fly, albeit short distances, as fast as 90 km/hr. (unlike the unfortunate turkeys thrown from the plane in the “WKRP In Cincinnati” famous holiday turkey giveaway… ‘oh the humanity!’). When excited, the males’ (which are polygamous, like deer) head and neck can actually change colours between red, white and blue. They can make at least 30 different calls, one of which, the male ‘gobble’, used to attract females, can be heard up to a kilometre and a half away! Wild turkeys have become adapted to living in fragmented landscapes such as ours, and will generally flee from people.
Various wildlife and environmental protection agencies suggest tips for preserving their habitat, like leaving a high percentage of mature mast-producing trees, such as beech and oak, and encouraging the growth of grape vines, junipers, hawthorns and winterberry to produce food and cover. A few edge rows of corn in isolated areas can also be a winter food source.
Although turkeys can cause damage in some cases, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources this is rare. Damage reported by farmers to agricultural fields is often misattributed to turkeys, because they are highly visible, especially in those large flocks, instead of to other creatures such as deer, raccoons, skunks and squirrels, which are nocturnal, arboreal or small. They will scavenge the unharvested waste grain that provides a late fall food source. Turkeys may scratch in flowerbeds and mulched areas or visit bird feeders. Do not feed wild turkeys – this makes them more susceptible to disease, and encourages them to roost in places you might not want, like your roof. If there are concerns about human turkey interaction, clean up spilt seed from any bird feeders or remove them entirely. Scarecrows, reflective tape, noisemaking devices, and dogs will all scare them away.
A bit of turkey trivia: Benjamin Franklin famously wrote to his daughter in confidence that he wished the Bald Eagle had not be chosen as the symbol of America, being a “bird of bad moral character” and much preferred the Wild Turkey, “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.”
So, there you have it: maybe you’ll have the opportunity to see a flock as you travel the area, and now you’ll know what they are: we’re talking turkey.
Wild Turkey in Ontario