This past weekend, my family was returning home from a visit in Union County when I noticed a rather large flock of wild turkeys grazing in a crop field along the edge of a stream. That same flock had been there that morning in the same field – about eight hours earlier. They were magnificently beautiful – if you consider turkeys beautiful.
Knowing it was fall turkey season, I thought it odd that they were being so bold to be out in the open as they were. I took a look at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources hunting regulations and discovered that Union County is not open for fall turkey hunting, but our neighboring Delaware County is. Smart birds, those wild turkeys!
When the early settlers came to Ohio, wild turkey was a valuable food source for both the settlers and the Native Americans. Over time, forests were converted to cropland and/or destroyed by coal mining. By 1904, there were virtually no wild turkeys left in Ohio. Fortunately, these birds adapt readily to new habitats.
In 1976, on the job at one of my first soil & water conservation district board meetings in Knox County, a couple of board members, dairy farmers in the unglaciated region of Knox County, were discussing the wild turkeys they had seen during harvest. The ODNR wildlife officer happened to be attending the board meeting that night to discuss deer hunting issues. During the discussion, he indicated that Knox County did not have enough forestland to support a turkey population. One of the dairy farmers stated: “You better tell the turkeys that! They are overrunning my alfalfa fields!”
Today, ODNR indicates that wild turkeys can survive in areas with as little as 15 percent forest cover. According to its website, all 88 counties have wild turkey populations; however, the heaviest populations occur in the more forested regions of eastern and southern Ohio.
In 1956, wild turkeys began to make a comeback in Ohio with a little help from the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife through a reintroduction program. Wild turkeys were live-trapped in other states and released in areas of the state where the habitat was especially suitable. Over the next 50-60 years, the populations adapted to the landscape and are now doing quite well across all of Ohio.
Ohio’s largest game bird, the wild turkey stands three to four feet tall and weighs up to 24 pounds. It has a slim build, long neck and nearly featherless head. The body feathers, however, are iridescent when seen up close. Adult males (gobblers) have a reddish head, a long tasseled “beard” dangling from the breast. The beard is a clump of long, stiff, hair-like feathers that hang from the gobbler’s breast and can be over 10 inches long. While the turkey is slim in build, we often think of the “puffed-up” version that we see in ads at Thanksgiving time. Only the male turkey can fan out its feathers and uses this as a way to attract a female in order to mate.
The rebirth of wild turkey in Ohio shows how proper management, good conservation programs and the adaptability of Mother Nature all play a hand in this success story. For more information on Ohio’s wild turkey, go to the ODNR’s Division of Wildlife website at www.wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.