September 19, 2014 – When Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they brought domesticated turkeys from Britain. Turkeys are not native to Europe; in fact, the bird had been brought to Europe from Central America 100 years earlier! Turkey fossils unearthed in the southern United States and Mexico show that the bird has been native to North America for at least five million years. The bird was abundant in the Americas at the time of the first European settlements.
The Aztecs in Central America had domesticated the bird over 1,600 years prior to the landing of the Pilgrims. The Spanish, under Hernando Cortes, conquered the Aztec Empire by 1521. In their march to the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlán (present day Mexico City) the Conquistadors were introduced to wild turkeys by local natives. After their conquest, not only were large quantities of gold and silver taken back to Spain, but live turkeys as well. The Spanish, who had reintroduced the horse to the Americas, introduced the turkey to Europe.
Turkey meat became more popular with the European aristocracy than peacock meat favoured previously. Domestication of the bird quickly spread from Spain to Italy, and then into France. The French called the bird “dinde”, perhaps a shortening of ‘coq d’Inde’ – ‘cock from the Indies’. The bird arrived in Great Britain in 1541 via Constantinople (the strategic trading centre of the Ottoman Turks) and was referred to as a “Turkey coq” because it was shipped to England from Turkey. Eventually the name was shortened to just ‘turkey’.
Wild turkeys are the largest of the North American game birds, reaching weights of 10 to 14 kg. These large, plump birds have long legs, small naked heads on slim necks and wide rounded tails. Wild turkey tails are usually 30 to 38 cm long and are banded at the tips. The colour of the bands in the tail varies by subspecies (of which there are six). Domestic turkeys have white tails like the original Mexican subspecies, whereas North American wild turkeys have chestnut-brown feather tips.
Males (gobblers or toms) have iridescent red, green, copper, bronze and gold feathers. They use these bright colours to great advantage when attracting females during breeding season. Females (hens) have drab, usually brown or gray feathers. They provide great camouflage for the hens when they are sitting on their nests.
Female wild turkey (hen)
Male wild turkey (tom)
|Photos by Kevin Fasken|
When European settlers arrived on the eastern seaboard, wild turkeys inhabited what are now called the thirty-nine continental states and the Canadian province of Ontario. The species, always closely tied to early Native American cultures, became a major source of food for the early pioneers. The birds were hunted year-round. At the same time, the clearing of large tracts of forest - for agricultural purposes and to provide buffer zones between settlements and native peoples – put pressure on the habitat of the birds. By 1790 there were four million colonists, and the westward expansion had not only started to threaten the existence of the bison population but the wild turkey population as well.
“As the settlers tamed the wilderness, cleared the woodlands and pushed westward, fewer wild turkeys were left behind. Connecticut lost its wild turkeys by 1813. Vermont held out until 1842, and other states followed. By 1920 the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada, in its supposed ancestral range.” History of the Wild Turkey in North America
Wild turkeys that managed to survive did so by living in the most inaccessible areas. It was only after the wildlife management movement began to gain credibility in 1933 that states began to provide funds for wildlife recovery projects. Wild turkey reintroduction programs began in the 1940s, and the birds were relocated to areas where their populations had been decimated - but where woodlands were recovering. Cannon-nets were first used to capture wild turkeys in 1951. This net, a 10 m X 20 m cloth mesh that was concealed on the ground, was propelled over a flock of turkeys by black-powder cannons detonated by a trapper hiding nearby. It made the capture of the birds much easier and helped to accelerate relocation programs.
A 1979 turkey restoration survey, conducted in 36 states, showed that about 30,000 wild-trapped birds released on 968 sites resulted in 808 established populations. Unfortunately, the 300,000 pen-raised turkeys, released into 800 sites, failed in 760 of those sites.
The trap-and-transplant reintroduction program for wild turkeys was so successful it was adopted universally. These efforts worked so well that wild turkeys now live in areas where they may not have occurred at the time when Europeans first reached the Americas. Today there are over seven million wild turkeys across North America, and flocks are also found in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand.
No other game bird has responded so well to the efforts of game managers. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 7.8 million wild turkeys, with 89% occurring in the U.S.A., 10% in Mexico, and 2% in Canada.
In recent years, however, U.S. turkey populations have declined 15% from historic highs in the early 2000’s because of the loss of essential habitats. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) states, “Six thousand acres of wildlife habitat is lost every day…that’s 2.2 million acres – an area the size of Yellowstone National Park – every year.”
The NWTF has launched the “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt” initiative in an effort to mobilize science, fundraising and volunteers to raise $1.2 billion to conserve and enhance more than four million acres of essential wildlife habitat. After decades of successfully reintroducing wild turkeys into the environment following centuries of overhunting and habitat loss, it would be a shame to lose many of those populations once again for some of those same reasons.
Wild Turkeys in Ontario
The last wild turkey had vanished from the province of Ontario by 1909. Government of Ontario reports cited sixty years of unregulated hunting and the clearing of forests for agriculture as causes of the species’ extirpation. The loss of habitat was particularly challenging, as wild turkeys thrive in areas that are part deciduous forest and part grassland. When forests are cut down, much of the birds’ habitat is lost, including brood cover (a major requirement for breeding).
“In 1984, the provincial government and organizations including the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters began releasing wild turkeys from Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee back into Ontario. The turkeys were quick to adapt to their new environment, and over three years a total of 4,400…were redistributed at 275 sites across the province. Today an estimated 100,000 eastern wild turkeys live in Ontario, with 13,000 concentrated in the Ottawa area alone. The population made such a comeback, in fact, that a spring hunting season was introduced by 1987, followed by a fall season in 2008.” ~ excerpt from Canadian Geographic (Dec. 2013)
Wild turkeys live in mature forests, particularly those with nut trees such as oak, hickory or beech, interspersed with clearings. In southern Ontario, wild turkeys were released into the Carolinian Forest that encircles the northern shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and lower Lake Huron - an ideal habitat that offered the birds excellent prospects for survival. Wild turkeys can adapt to virtually any dense native plant community as long as tree coverage with nearby clearings or fields are available.
Surprisingly, these birds have ventured northwards into areas that are outside of their historical natural range – into the mixed conifer and deciduous forests of the Canadian Shield. In 2002, the bird count in the Muskoka region (see map) of central Ontario was eight; in 2009 it was 106. They are now routinely observed in both the Sudbury and Nipissing regions which are even further north. I have seen a pair of the birds just 5 km from my home (which is located in the Nipissing area).
These regions are characterized by rather harsh winters. How have wild turkeys managed to survive here under those conditions?
Wild turkeys are chiefly herbivorous, foraging on the forest floor for a variety of nuts, seeds and berries – but they also consume insects and spiders, snails, salamanders and snakes. They are nomadic feeders with a tendency to sample a wide variety of forages, primarily dictated by their availability. In the 1999-2000 study “Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, Behaviour in Central Ontario during Winter,” it was reported that wild turkeys under observation foraged primarily on clover, asters, goldenrod, bracken and fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern during the winter. Sensitive Ferns were foraged in large quantities because of their high nutritional content (crude protein 18.6%) and/or the high availability of this food source in areas of less snow. Eastern Wild Turkeys are capable of flight, so they are able to fly up into trees. Observations, made on many occasions, confirmed that these birds fed on Trembling Aspen buds and satisfied their water requirements by eating snow.
At the end of the day, wild turkeys fly up into trees to roost for the night. In northern Ontario, the tallest and largest conifer trees are usually selected for that purpose. Because conifers maintain their needles during the winter, their branches offer shelter from the cold winds and reduce the birds’ heat loss.
Snowfall of more than 25 centimetres for several weeks is potentially fatal for wild turkeys, according to turkey specialist Jim Pack in West Virginia. In northern Ontario, bone-chilling cold temperatures and near-record snowfall amounts of over 200 cm made the winter of 2013-14 one of the coldest in the past twenty years. According to Josef Hamr and colleagues at Laurentian University in Sudbury, such winters typically result in wild-turkey losses exceeding 60% of the population. The Algonquin Provincial Park Birding Report on Feb. 6, 2014, stated that only one of the seven wild turkeys that had frequented the feeders at the Visitor Centre was seen regularly, although a few birds were still being observed along the highway.
“The reduction may be due to dispersal, predation and/or starvation...the deepsnowand cold temperatures this year have likely been hard on this species here.”
Algonquin Provincial Park, located north of the Muskoka region, extends into the Nipissing region of central Ontario. Wild turkeys were first reported here in 2002.
Time will tell whether these flexible, adaptive birds are able to establish themselves in these regions of the north, or if successful populations will be limited to the more southerly parts of the province.
Wild Turkeys in Other Parts of Canada
In the 1970s, the Alberta government let 22 birds loose in the High River area near Porcupine Hills. There are now an estimated 2,500 wild turkeys in Alberta, about 100 in Saskatchewan, with plans to introduce more, and about 3,000 in British Columbia. Manitoba trapped and transferred some of Ontario's birds, and there is now a thriving population of wild turkeys in the southern portion of the province. Quebec also has a large population of birds.
The debate rages in the eastern part of Canada, however, whether or not the wild turkey should be introduced. While hunters have lobbied hard to introduce the birds, governments have been resistant to the idea. Arguments opposed to the introduction state that:
- wild turkeys are not native to Maritime Canada,
- there are no natural predators in the region to control their populations,
- there could be harmful effects on existing wildlife species, and
- there are potential issues with disease and crop damage.
Lobbying continues in New Brunswick but Nova Scotia has already made its decision. After reviews by two governmental departments, public consultation sessions, an independent scientific review and an assessment for the risk of disease, the province said, “No.” The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries stated the province will revisit the issue if new information is presented.
Today, turkey hunting is the second most popular form of hunting in the United States (after deer hunting). Every year, close to three million hunters take to the woods, farms, plains and mountains to pursue the wild turkey.
By 2003, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources estimated that wild turkey hunting had created 130 sustainable person-years of employment, stimulated $9 million in Gross Provincial Income, and contributed almost $600,000 to the Special Purpose Account revenue. Today wild turkey hunting stimulates more than $14 million in Gross Provincial Income, and over $1,300,000 in Special Purpose Account revenue.
The National Wild Turkey Federation in the U.S., reporting on the success of wild turkey restoration and wild turkey hunting stated, “In 1958, the nationwide population of wild turkeys was less than 500,000 birds with an annual harvest of about 45,000 birds. In 1999, the population had increased to nearly 5.5 million birds with an estimated harvest of 750,000. Obviously, the interest in the wild turkey has grown with the increase in birds' range and numbers.”
“The growth in turkey populations and in the number of turkey hunters has provided a great economic boost to local, state, and national economies. A study completed in 1989 found that in six states scattered throughout the country, the average expenditure per state for wild turkey hunting was just over $12.3 million. Assuming that this figure applies as well in each of the 49 states that allow hunting, turkey hunters contribute more than a half billion dollars annually to the nation's economy.”
Hunting in Ontario
Spring Wild Turkey hunting is a specialized sport requiring skill and plenty of patience. The wild turkey’s keen eyesight, sharp hearing and extreme wariness make it one of the most elusive of all game species. Wild turkey hunting is potentially dangerous given its secretive, camouflaged nature and the inexperience of newcomers to the sport. Learning about the behaviour of this bird is equally as important as learning the basic techniques to safely hunt it.
Maine Department of Fisheries & Wildlife
In Ontario, all hunters must first possess a valid “Outdoors Card”(hunter accreditation, gun handling and safety training information is imbedded in the card’s magnetic strip). Before a licence to hunt wild turkeys can be purchased, hunters must first take a nine-hour compulsory turkey education seminar (The Wild Turkey Hunter Education Program) and pass the rigorous test, which follows.
The full day, in-depth seminar, organized and controlled by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), is delivered by expert biologists, seasoned hunters and champion turkey callers. The course covers biology, hunting techniques and safety measures.
The spring hunt begins in late April, after the breeding season, and continues until the end of May. Only bearded turkeys (those with a cluster of long, hair-like feathers from the centre of their chests) can be harvested. In 2012, Ontario hunters reported bagging 8,079 wild turkeys during the spring hunt and 274 in the fall. The spring hunt is more popular because turkey calling techniques are more effective at that time of year.
|The wild turkey is an admirable bird. A relative of the pheasant, it is one of the fastest of the game birds, able to fly short distances at up to 90 kilometres per hour and run at up to 40 kilometres per hour. Its eyesight and hearing are superbly acute, as every turkey hunter knows all too well. The male has beautiful iridescent bronze and green plumage, although the naked head and neck, with its red caruncle (a fleshy growth on the upper neck) - otherwise known as wattle - and snood (a bulbous, fleshy growth that flops downward over the beak) are probably attractive only to other turkeys. Wild turkeys are polygamous; in the spring, toms gobble (hens don't - they make a clicking sound), strut, and fan their tails to attract a harem of females. Robert Hercz, LCBO Food and Drink (2003)|
Thanksgiving – a traditional celebration of the blessings of the agricultural year and the harvest – has its origin in English traditions dating back to the early 1500’s. Americans celebrate the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November, while Canadians do so on the second Monday of October. Since Canada is located further north than most of the U.S.A., winter arrives earlier, the harvest season concludes earlier, and Thanksgiving celebrations are held earlier.
In North America, turkey is normally served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 1935, the per capita consumption of turkey was about 0.8 kg per year. Today it is nearly 9.0 kg per person per year. Domestic turkeys account for the bulk of the produce, but wild turkeys are a delicious alternative.
Since most of these wild birds are hunted in the spring, they must be kept frozen for many months before being thawed for the Thanksgiving Day feast. Some recipes for cooking wild turkey are included at the end of the References section. Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy the turkey and pumpkin pie !
Talking Turkey – Robert Hercz, Food and Drink magazine, LCBO 2003
Why is a turkey called a turkey? – interview with Professor Mario Pei on NPR’s Morning Edition
What does a wild turkey look like? – National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF)
Birds of Ontario – photos by Kevin Fasken
Wild Turkeys We Have Sighted Across Ontario – photos by Bob & Jean
Wild Turkey (Meleagris Gallopavo) – Subspecies, morphology, behaviour
Wild Turkey – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds”
History of the Wild Turkey in North America – NWTF Wildlife Bulletin No. 15
Resurgence of the Eastern Wild Turkey (in Ontario) – Canadian Geographic (Dec. 2013)
The Remarkable Return of Turkeys to Ontario’s Wild – North Bay Nipissing News (Aug. 2011)
The Return of the Wily Wild Turkey – The Globe and Mail (Oct. 2010)
Talking Turkey: Trying to Separate the Facts from the Fiction – Nova Outdoors (Spring 2005)
Proposed Wild Turkey Introduction (2012 News Release) – N.S. Dept. of Natural Resources
Assessment of Crop Depredation by Wild Turkeys – Wildlife Society Bulletin (Summer 2005)
Turkey Hunting – A Hunter’s First Experience – The Chronicle Journal (Feb. 2012)
Turkey Hunting 101 – Hungry-for-hunting.com
Turkey Hunting: Tips and Tactics from the Masters – Outdoor Life (March 2013)
How to Cook a Wild Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey History – About.com
A Brine Recipe – TasteReport.com
Roast Wild Turkey with Walnut Stuffing and Mushroom Gravy – Canadian Living