Turkeys are Adaptable Birds

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

Ohio hunters checked in almost 3000 birds on opening day in the south zone which is all counties except a few in the northeast corner of the state. That’s a significant number of birds considering they were extirpated in Ohio in 1904. Excuse the word extirpated, but it simply means they were extinct in a specific area. Regardless, turkeys were reintroduced in the 1950s by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and the first modern-day turkey season opened in 1966 in nine counties. In 2000, turkey hunting was open in all 88 counties and Ohio hunters checked in more than 20,000 wild turkeys for the first time that year. On that first opening day for Auglaize, no birds were checked in. Today, the county has a viable population of wild turkeys, and according to hunters I’ve talked to the birds continue to spread. According to Mark Schemmel, Auglaize County Wildlife Officer, turkeys are located in all 14 of the county’s townships.

No doubt, a statewide estimated turkey population of over 200,000 is impressive, especially with the land development and urban sprawl we call progress. Game management protocols have been right-on, and a lot has been learned since birds were reestablished in Ohio. Also, turkey management success has a lot to do with the birds. Although I don’t turkey hunt, I do have a very limited management background that if nothing more gives me an appreciation of how adaptable these big game birds really are. They’re eating machines and like protein. Being omnivores, they’ll eat anything dead or alive. Snakes, frogs, crawdads, worms, bugs, and mice are all on the menu. Some of the most productive years for turkeys occur during a cicada hatch. A high volume, high protein diet makes turkey chicks turn into hardy, strong birds in no time. This is especially important since their survival rate is challenged for the first four weeks of life. Some studies show that 50 to 70 percent of turkey poults will die in the first two weeks and that a high mortality rate will continue until the young birds can roost in trees.

One of the biggest lessons learned about stocking turkeys was that only wild stock should be planted. Turkeys trapped in the wild and transplanted retain their wild traits. Releasing tame turkeys into the wild is a bad idea. The possibility of infecting wild birds with disease is a possibility. Even more, from what I learned from wildlife biologists in Kansas and Missouri, if tame and wild birds are mixed, there is a greater chance that the wild birds would be tamed. Missouri learned that the hard way in the 1950s when their wild turkey population was barely 2500 birds. Stocking tame birds almost eliminated their entire remaining flock. Correcting their mistakes turned the tide and today Missouri has a turkey population over 350,000.

I like to take a little credit for the success of the Kansas turkey management program. Although I suggested otherwise, my boss at Ft. Riley ordered me to release tame turkeys on the military reservation. I mentioned that our partners at Kansas State University said it wasn’t a good move, but being a general trumps a Ph.D. I think his response was, “These birds will survive because I say they will survive.” Long story short, the tame birds became tamer and gravitated to the easiest sources of food and places to roost.  Instead of heading for the wild, they gravitated to civilization. Instead of roosting in trees, they roosted on garages. Instead of eating bugs and mice, they ate garbage scraps and cleaned out vegetable gardens. The general never admitted the error even when a few of the birds were spotted walking down the streets of Manhattan, Kansas.

No one ever again stocked tame birds in Kansas. Wild eastern birds were trapped and released as were Rio Grande turkeys. Today, there is also a hybrid of the two concentrated in the north central part of the state where Ft. Riley is located. I don’t know if our boondoggle was ever documented, but I like to think that we helped persuade other states to stock wild birds only. I don’t know how many wild turkeys we have in Auglaize County and there is really no way to get an accurate count. According to Mark Wiley, ODNR wildlife biologist, spring harvest numbers are an index of turkey abundance and trends. Reproductive success is tracked with the summer brood survey. What’s really interesting is that having turkeys in every township shows that they can survive, multiply, and adapt in a highly agricultural area. It’s also interesting that the thriving population we have today in Auglaize County started with the release of 14 birds in 2000, 20 in 2001, and 20 in 2006.

I’ve been around this area for almost 80 years now. There is no way I would have predicted that hunters would be chasing turkeys in this part of the state. I’m glad I was wrong.