Turkeys: Now and then

Turkeys: Now and then

By Luke Garver
Photos by Jake Vancil

Spring is just about here, and we all know what that means: cardinals singing, redbuds blooming, morels popping and … turkeys gobbling!

In a few short weeks, the wild turkey breeding season will begin, and America’s largest game bird will be heard gobbling and seen strutting in forests and open fields across Illinois.

Whether you’re a seasoned spring turkey hunter or just someone who enjoys seeing these charismatic birds in the woods, anyone can agree they have an interesting story. Benjamin Franklin called wild turkeys a “respectable bird,” “a bird of courage” and “a true original native of America” in a letter to his daughter in 1784. He even went so far as to say they have a much higher “moral character” than bald eagles.

Outside of the Thanksgiving season, most Americans likely don’t give wild turkeys much thought these days. They can currently be found in 49 states and in every county in Illinois, so it’s understandable that they could be taken for granted.

Attitudes toward the bird were probably similar on the Illinois frontier when early Americans began arriving here. Turkeys were very abundant in the woodlands and savannahs of Illinois back then. Accounts from the time explain that in early spring, someone could travel for miles and never be out of earshot of early morning gobbles. Some even lamented about being unable to get quality sleep during the turkeys’ breeding season.

Their demise came swiftly, however. Almost anyone will agree that turkeys are delicious, so it’s no surprise they were readily sought-after by hungry settlers. Market hunting, coupled with widespread clearcutting of woodland habitat, resulted in a collapse of their populations. By the early 1900s, wild turkeys were scarce across the United States and virtually nonexistent in Illinois.

Turkeys weren’t the only victim of unregulated hunting and short-sighted land uses either. Everything from bison to bears and wolves to waterfowl saw their numbers greatly diminished here in The Prairie State.

Even the ever-present white-tailed deer had vanished from most of Illinois by the turn of the 20th century. Some of these species were nearly gone for good, but many have made comebacks due to reintroduction efforts and land conservation.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that IDNR’s predecessor, the Illinois Department of Conservation, began their first attempts at restoring turkey populations.

Domestic/wild cross turkeys were raised in pens until they reached suitable numbers for a large release. Unfortunately, while domestic birds thrive in captivity, they do poorly when released into the wild. Annual survival was very low, and the birds simply did not know how to successfully reproduce in the wild.

Fortunately, by the late ‘50s several other states were working on restoring turkey populations as well. Through careful planning and a crafty trade, Illinois received their first batch of truly wild stock turkeys from West Virginia for some wild caught Illinois river otters. The restoration era had begun.

The newly transplanted birds thrived in their new home in southern Illinois and over the next several years, Illinois received additional supplemental stockings from other states including Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri.

As the populations grew in the recently restored Shawnee National Forest, Illinois biologists were able to move surplus birds to suitable woodland habitat in surrounding areas.

By 1970, numbers had rebounded so well that Illinois had its first modern hunting season in Alexander, Union and Jackson counties. For the next several decades, state biologists trapped and transplanted wild turkeys all over the state. By the early 2000s, wild turkeys were considered fully restored, and today, robust populations occur throughout the state.

The IDNR Spring Wild Turkey Hunting Season is open in every county except Cook and DuPage. There are fall shotgun and fall archery hunting seasons as well.

The restoration of the wild turkey is one of the greatest conservation success stories in our nation’s history. However, that story isn’t done being written. Today, wild turkeys are facing challenges across the nation. In many parts of their range, and especially in the southeastern U.S., populations have declined over the course of the last decade or more. Illinois has seen their own share of declines, though not as severe as some other states.

What’s troubling our turkeys? That’s the million-dollar question. The latest research indicates the bottleneck is in reproduction. Young birds simply aren’t making it to adulthood at the rates they used to — and in some cases, those rates are not sustainable. The difficulty researchers and managers face when addressing these issues is there almost certainly isn’t a single cause. Losses of both habitat quality and quantity are likely the root of the problem, but predation and some modern farming practices might be playing roles, too.

What can you do to help? If you own land turkeys might call home, getting in touch with conservation professionals to help write a management plan is a great start. Planting native species while removing invasive ones, using prescribed fire, and implementing forestry plans not only help wild turkeys, but all forest wildlife. Even something as simple as delaying roadside mowing until after the nesting season can help turkeys and grassland birds tremendously.

If you don’t own or manage land, you can still play a role in helping turkeys. Participating in IDNR’s wild turkey brood survey is a great way to provide valuable data used to monitor turkey reproduction. Send an email to Luke.Garver@illinois.gov to get added to our list.

Luke Garver is the Wild Turkey Project Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, where he helps set regulations, restore habitat and coordinate research for wild turkeys and other forest wildlife.

Want to help support turkey

and other wildlife conservation?

Anyone with an interest in wildlife, conservation and outdoor pursuits should consider joining the National Wild Turkey Federation. Jacksonville’s local chapter will be hosting a fundraising banquet on March 24th at the Morgan County Fairgrounds. Proceeds go to fund habitat restoration and youth hunting and fishing programs. Call 217-473-6187 or email Jacksonville.nwtf@gmail.com for more information. Purchase tickets online at: https://events.nwtf.org/1302210-2023/tickets .

Share This