The turkey on your table last week was hardly a bird at all. The modern turkey is a commercial crop, genetically engineered. Even the color has been bred out. Turkeys for the table are uniformly white. The table turkey more resembles an ear of corn than it does a living bird — except that while it lived, it had a beating heart.
The wild turkey is a bird of a different feather. It is a colorful creature arrayed with iridescent browns, purples and greens, and fixed with familiar features: a fan-shaped tail, a bare head and neck and a wattle. It also has a beard of thin feathers growing from the breast, unique among birds.
The wild turkey also is a survivor. Its numbers are increasing, and its range is expanding.
These days, it’s never a surprise to encounter a wild turkey almost anywhere in North Dakota. Turkeys have become common. They do have habitat requirements; they need ample cover and a good supply of food. Where these are met, turkeys occur.
Turkeys are common in the Pembina Hills and the Badlands, at opposite corners of the state, as well as in places in between, including the Devils Lake area, the Turtle Mountains and the Missouri River Valley.
Sometimes, I encounter wild turkeys along back roads in the Red River Valley, and once a single turkey wandered into our backyard west of Gilby, N.D. These are more likely strays from a hunting preserve than free-roaming birds.
Source of dispute
The status of wild turkeys has been controversial among bird watchers. At one time, the birder in charge of reviewing Christmas Bird Count results for the Midwestern states tried to remove turkeys from Red River Valley counts, arguing the birds were dependent on humans for survival here.
He lost the argument, since it would apply to a range of other species, including some that have become reliably winter residents, mostly surviving on food offered at backyard bird feeders.
It is undeniably true that wild turkeys in our part of the world do flourish on handouts from humans, whether intentional or not. They often congregate in farmyards, especially if the owner throws out a shovelful of grain. I’ve also seen them at small town elevators and around feedlots, both reliable places to find food.
The wild turkey isn’t too particular, however. The birds have moved into north Bismarck, where some people regard them as pests, since they get in the way of traffic and leave messes on sidewalks. One friend even complained the turkeys raided his garden.
All of this testifies to the turkey’s keen survival instincts.
Yet the bird is a newcomer to North Dakota. On their epic journey up the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark didn’t encounter wild turkeys north of central South Dakota, and the explorers didn’t mention turkeys in the journal of their sojourn at Fort Mandan, about 45 miles north of today’s city of Bismarck. No doubt they would have been grateful to have the birds. It was a long, cold winter, and the birds make excellent eating.
That is why they are so keenly sought by hunters.
That they have survived is more testimony to their survival skills.
Humans actually abetted the expansion of turkeys into North Dakota. The first of them were released along the Heart and Missouri rivers southwest of Bismarck-Mandan in 1952. In the same year, six hens and two gobblers were turned out in the Ponderosa pine area of the southern Badlands. Subsequent releases were made elsewhere in western North Dakota, and by the mid-1950s, the population was estimated at several thousand birds.
These details come from Robert E. Stewart’s book, “Breeding Birds of North Dakota.”
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department estimates the population of turkeys in the state at about 20,000, enough to allow hunting both spring and fall. Even so, not many are taken. The harvest was 1,947 birds in 2014, the Game and Fish Department website says.
More testimony to their survival skills.
Alas for the table turkey. It has no chance for survival at all — nor any chance for a normal life as a bird.
Think of that while you’re working over the leftovers.