Legend has it that Ben Franklin, in an eloquent plea to our Continental Congress, ably related the virtues of one of America's finest birds, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). The bald eagle, however, was chosen as our national bird because it represented fierce independence. Two centuries later, we are reminded of Mr. Franklin's habitual wisdom. Wild turkeys are increasing in numbers and range annually, while our bald eagle is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the relentless march of civilization and is in great danger of passing from the American scene.
The Merriman’s turkey of the West, Gould’s turkey of the Southwest, the Rio Grande turkey, Florida turkey and Eastern turkey are closely related birds which have learned to live in a great variety of climates and land uses. Each has responded well to protection, trapping and transplanting, timber management and other game management practices. Like the deer, once extinct but now inhabiting every county of Indiana, the future of wild turkey traditionally lived in larger tracts of timber, they are already responding well to agricultural ranges especially where unplowed cornfields provide an additional winter food source.
All domestic turkeys are descendants of those taken from the wild in North America 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 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.
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 against all competitors a territory 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 when 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 turkey’s diet consists of wild fruits, acorns, green leaves, seeds, and domestic grains. Those of our eastern woodland feed on sumac, wild grapes, dogwood berries, beechnuts, acorns, greenbrier, roots and tubers. Water is taken freely and grit consumed to grind harder foods.
A combination of uncontrolled hunting and nearly absolute destruction of timber completely wiped out turkeys in Indiana and other Midwestern states. As late as 1945, it appeared that they might be a vanishing species in the United States. As marginal farmland returned to timber and conservation practices were applied to our plundered land, the state was set for turkey revival.
Turkeys raised on game farms were released by the thousands, but only those with a high percentage of wild blood could survive. Semi-wild birds sought nearby barnyards and rapidly disappeared. Reservoirs of pure wild stock were trapped in the wild and transplanted into suitable habitats. Between 1956 and 2004, 2,795 wild trapped birds were released at 185 sites around the state. Wild turkeys now exist across the state and now several generations of citizens throughout the state can now see or hunt wild turkeys for the first time in their lives in a state where a little over a generation ago wild turkeys did not exist. 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.
Spring hunting for gobblers only occurs statewide. The bag limit is one bird. Since the early 2000’s 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 less than 1,000 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:
- Used only wild-trapped birds for restocking in areas of suitable habitat.
- Provided sustainable spring and fall hunting opportunities with the primary emphasis on spring hunting opportunities.
- Provided technical assistance to private land owners on how to better manage their lands for wild turkeys and other wildlife.
- Conducted habitat management on public lands to enhance nesting and brood rearing habitat.
- Monitors turkey population trends to ensure the sound stewardship of this natural resource.