Legend has it that American inventor and revolutionary Ben Franklin, in an eloquent plea to our Continental Congress, ably related the virtues of the wild turkey in order to get congress to adopt it as our country's national symbol. The bald eagle was chosen as our national bird because it represented fierce independence, but Franklin's love for the wild turkey is shared by many today, which is why so many have worked so hard to bring it back.
Wild turkeys were extirpated from Indiana around the 1900s due to loss of forested habitats and unregulated, subsistence hunting for food. As late as 1945, it appeared that they might be a vanishing species in the United States. As marginal farmland returned to forest and conservation practices were applied to our plundered land, the state was set for turkey revival. Where wild turkeys were extirpated, state wildlife agencies were able to successfully restore the appropriate subspecies by solely using wild trapped turkeys from residual wild populations and transplanting them to areas of suitable habitat.
Between 1956 and 2004, 2,795 wild trapped birds were released at 185 sites around the state. Wild turkeys are now found in all 92 counties. Spring density over most of the turkey range in Indiana is one to six birds per square mile with some estimates as high as 25 birds per square mile.
Additionally, modern day hunting regulations were developed to allow sustainable annual harvests while providing protection to the long term existence of wild turkeys. Wildlife habitat management projects, ensuring the seasonal life needs of wild turkeys, have also contributed to their successful restoration. The future of wild turkey will be directly tied to the connectivity of forest cover and travel corridors, the presence of quality nesting and brood rearing habitat, and how well they can adapt to increasing human development that often reduces the habitat quality of areas for wild turkeys.
All domestic turkeys are descendants of those taken from the wild in North and Central America. Genuine wild turkeys resemble their tame relatives, but generations of escaping meat eaters has resulted in extreme wariness and preference for rapid take off and flights of more than a mile.
The wild turkey's naked head and neck have a bluish cast, while the overall appearance is glossy black with a metallic sheen. Hens are smaller than gobblers, less lustrous and do not have the bristly black beard hanging from the center of the breast.
There are five subspecies of wild turkey, the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo sylvestris) is the subspecies historically found in Indiana. Other subspecies include the Merriman's turkey of the West, Gould's turkey of the Southwest, the Rio Grande turkey, and the Florida turkey. Each subspecies is particularly adapted to the environments, climates, and habitats where they exist. The subspecies will interbreed and subspecies hybrids occur where their respective ranges overlap.
Late winter finds flocks dividing into smaller groups with the hens in one flock, young males in another and old gobblers in a different group. These bearded ancestors select and defend a territory against all competitors for their harem. Each morning, they call to and court as many hens as they can lure away from neighboring gobblers. These displays of grand feathers, courtship movement and occasional lusty fights are performed from February through May.
Hens slip off from their companions and throw together a careless but well-screened nest located on the ground and often concealed by brush and low vegetation. Nests may contain seven to 20 eggs, but the average is about 12. The hen seldom leaves the nest after incubation. Pink/brown chicks emerge to live and feed on the ground until they begin awkward flights at about a month old. This family group feeds, roosts and loafs together until large flocks congregate in late autumn.
Insects provide high energy food for fast-growing poult, but the backbone of a turkey's diet consists of wild fruits, acorns, green leaves, seeds and domestic grains. Turkeys found in woodlands feed on sumac, wild grapes, dogwood berries, beechnuts, acorns, greenbrier, roots and tubers.
A combination of uncontrolled hunting and nearly absolute destruction of timber completely wiped out turkeys in Indiana and other Midwestern states.
A spring hunting season for turkeys has been in place since 1970. The bag limit is one bird. Since the early 2000s, annual spring harvests have exceeded 10,000 birds with over 50,000 hunters participating. A conservative fall season was implemented in 2005 and annual fall harvests average less than 700 birds.
Turkey eggs are especially vulnerable to ground predators during the nesting period and young poults are vulnerable prey to a wide variety of predators. Larger adults are not as susceptible to predation and generally live for several years.
Turkey Management in Indiana
The Division of Fish and Wildlife has followed the management plan listed below:
- Using only wild-trapped birds for restocking in areas of suitable habitat.
- Providing sustainable spring and fall hunting opportunities with the primary emphasis on spring hunting opportunities.
- Providing technical assistance to private land owners on how to better manage their lands for wild turkeys and other wildlife.
- Conducting habitat management on public lands to enhance nesting and brood rearing habitat.
- Monitoring turkey population trends to ensure the sound stewardship of this natural resource.