What was it about the wild turkey that made Ben Franklin nominate it for our national bird? Turns out, that’s fake news at least the national bird part.
According to history.com, Franklin wrote a letter in 1784 to his daughter, Sarah, saying the bald eagle should not have been chosen as the centerpiece of the Great Seal two years earlier.
The eagle is “a bird of bad moral character,” stealing fish from other birds, and “a coward,” he wrote. The turkey, on the other hand, is “respectable” and “a bird of courage” that would not hesitate to attack a grenadier should one “invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
He never talked about his admiration for the turkey publicly; his proposal for the Great Seal actually involved Moses making the Red Sea slosh over Pharaoh. But perhaps if Franklin knew of the turkey’s toughness and adaptability, coming back after extinction in the state of Ohio, he might have reconsidered.
According to a 1990 report by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, fossil records show turkeys were in the Ohio Valley as early as 6000 BC. Travelers to Ohio in the 1700s reported turkeys in abundance.
In the early 1800s, crowds of hunters began surrounding flocks of turkeys, killing 300 and 400 at a time, in an alarming trend called “circular hunting.” By the mid- to late-1800s, hunting seasons ranged from 76 to 154 days, with no bag limit. That was bad enough, but the Division of Wildlife report cites loss of habitat as the primary reason for the turkey’s demise.
Ohio’s land was 54% forest in 1853, but only 20% 100 years later. Much of that was due to cutting trees to fuel charcoal furnaces in the smelting of iron from the 1820s to the early 1900s, especially in southern Ohio counties. Add in the upsurge in farming, and there was little forest left for the turkeys by the turn of the century.
In The Birds of Ohio, a report to the Ohio State Academy of Science in 1903, the author wrote that “This, the noblest of all game birds, is all but extinct in the state.” The last recorded shooting of a wild turkey was in 1904, in Adams County.
In the 1920s, the Division of Fish and Game, predecessor of the Division of Wildlife, tried to reintroduce turkeys in southern Ohio using what they thought were wild turkeys that had been raised on farms. The attempt failed; the birds had too much “domestic turkey blood” and couldn’t survive in the wild.
Another attempt was made in the early 1950s. By that time, the forests had returned to the south-central and southeastern parts of the state, and more “non-pheasant” wild game was in demand. This time, wild turkey poults were imported from Maryland and Pennsylvania and again raised on farms. But the 1,400 “game farm” turkeys didn’t have a fear of humans, didn’t roost in trees, and didn’t reproduce successfully. The last ones disappeared in the 1960s.
The third attempt at reintroduction was finally the charm. In the late 1950s, the cannon net, later modified to the rocket net, allowed wild turkeys to be live trapped in other states, then speedily shipped by air, rail or truck to southern Ohio forests, where they began to flourish.
Then something unexpected happened. “Most biologists at the time thought they’d only occupy southern Ohio,” said Mark Wiley, wildlife biologist for the Division of Wildlife, who is tasked with monitoring wild turkey populations and harvest for the state. “They proved everyone wrong.”
While it’s true they do best in the unglaciated forests in southern and eastern Ohio which still have the highest populations the turkeys were moving north and west, and adapting to different environments. In the end, fewer than 200 wild turkeys were imported from other states, Wiley said. After that, they were just trapped in southern Ohio and moved to other parts of the state.
The reintroduction effort that began in the late 1950s continued through 2008 and succeeded in establishing turkeys in all 88 counties. That includes areas of intensive agriculture in Northwest Ohio, where Wiley is from. The turkeys make their homes in the wooded areas along creeks and streams, then take advantage of the grain in the fields, he said.
One reason they can live in less-than-ideal habitats is that they are “opportunistic omnivores.” That means they eat both plant and animal matter, “whatever is most available at that time of year,” Wiley explained.
In spring, when hens are nesting, they need extra protein. They will eat a lot of insects, invertebrates like snails, even small amphibians. In summer, turkeys add fruit and berries to the menu. In early fall, they take advantage of soft tree fruit, like wild grapes, he said. And, of course, the corn, soybeans and wheat from farm fields, along with seeds from ragweed and native plants. As winter rolls in, they depend more on tree nuts especially acorns, which last the longest. They’ll scratch through the snow to find nuts, tubers and plant matter.
In spring, the hens will begin to isolate themselves and search for a concealed place to make a nest. They lay a clutch of between 10 and 12 eggs, which take about a month to hatch. It takes the poults another two weeks to be able to fly into trees to roost; until then, they and the hens are vulnerable. Later, the hens and poults join flocks of other hens and poults.
Males hang out in their own flocks, and sometimes the jakes separate from the older males. Unlike the early 1800s, flocks are small: 15 to 30 for hens and poults, 15 to 20 for males, Wiley said.
The first Ohio turkey hunting season in 60 years occurred in 1966, only in spring, and only in nine southern counties.
Now, as then, the start of the season is based on nesting studies. It is timed so that hens are sitting on nests, lessening the chances that they will be targeted, and maximizing the chances for hunters to take gobblers, Wiley said.
The spring season starts on the Saturday closest to April 21. But that’s only in the 83 counties in the South Zone. In 2017, five counties became the Northeast Zone, whose season starts on the Saturday closest to May 1.
“We were getting a lot of comments from hunters in Geauga and Ashtabula counties who felt lake-effect snow was delaying nesting in that area,” Wiley said. “Hunters are concerned about conservation as well as hunting.”
The hours that hunting is allowed are also designed to minimize risk to hens. The first week of the spring season, hunting ends at noon. Biologists think hens may decide it’s safe to leave the eggs and go forage for food when temperatures get warmer in the afternoon.
Ohio had its first fall turkey season in 1996, again only in southern and eastern counties where turkeys were plentiful. Since then, fall hunting has expanded to the rest of the state, except for those heavily agricultural counties in Northwest Ohio.
“The turkey population in this region has not yet grown to sufficient levels to allow fall hunting, but we continue to evaluate this possibility,” Wiley said.
The rules for the fall season allow dogs to be used to break up flocks, the bagging of both hens and gobblers, and bow hunting as well as gun. Much of the fall bagging is done while hunters are going after other game, like deer.
The 1990 report by the Division of Wildlife said the number of turkey hunters had increased by 900% from 1980 to 1988, when there were about 20,000 of them. The division’s goal for the next 30 years was to establish a wild turkey population of 40,500, which would be enough to keep 27,500 hunters happy.
Wiley said there is no way to pin down the current turkey population, but it’s estimated at between 180,000 and 200,000. Turkey hunters can be counted by permits sold, but there are also thousands who don’t buy permits because they hunt on their own land. Hunter numbers are estimated at 70,000, he said.
In both cases, the numbers far exceed the goals of the 1990 report.
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