The Why Files The Why Files --

 Return of the wild

Turkeys go wild amid the howl of the coyotes

As 45 million turkeys head for American ovens, we got to thinking: what about wild turkeys? Over the past few decades, wild turkeys have returned to many parts of their former range. What accounts for the great success of this broad reintroduction program?

Over the last century, coyotes have dramatically expanded their range, and are found in every U.S. state except Hawaii. How do these carnivores affect their habitat? When we hear the characteristic coyote howl in the backyard, are our cats, dogs, even children in danger?

But first, it’s Thanksgiving day. What’s cooking with the wild turkey?

Black and white photo of smiling man with hat holding legs of turkey with wings stretched behind him
Ca. 1910-1915; Library of Congress
Heading for dinner!

Wilding the turkey

If there had been an endangered species list in the 1930s, the wild turkey might have been on it. Habitat loss, disease and rampant hunting had knocked the stuffing out of the big bird.

Once common, it had become scarce or extinct in most of its natural range.

The domestic turkeys that we gobble on Thanksgiving trace their heritage to turkeys that Spain imported from its colony, Mexico. The big birds were raised for 100 years in Europe before the Pilgrims returned them to the Americas, just in time to start the traditional November feeding frenzy.

But disease, habitat loss, and hunters who turned wild turkeys into a profitable source of meat, gave the turkey a real basting.

Around 1930, a triumvirate of conservation agencies, hunting groups and university researchers launched a tenacious restoration effort.

Wild turkey with brown feathers and red head standing in brush next to tree
Courtesy William Porter
A turkey in its native habitat, in southeast Minnesota.

At first, state agencies raised turkeys at game farms and released them into the wild. But unfortunately, evolution had carved away traits that the turkey needed to survive in the wild, says William Porter, a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y. "We found that the characteristics that allowed the turkey to live in pens were not the same characteristics that would allow it to live the wild, When released, they fed coyotes, foxes and great horned owls, and did not persist."

Between 1936 and 1955, Virginia alone released 22,000 game-farm birds, much to the delight of four-footed local carnivores.

Facing failure, in the mid-1950s wildlife biologists began to trap and transfer some of the surviving wild turkeys into good habitat. The numbers were smaller, but the effects larger. The 900 turkeys that Virginia authorities began releasing in 1955, for example, have now spread throughout the Commonwealth.

The first releases targeted forests, which were considered ideal turkey turf, but the bird proved more adaptable than scientists thought. "Research began showing that the wild turkey could live in areas well beyond what was considered suitable habitat," Porter says. The ideal turkey habitat now seems to be where farms meet forests in hilly landscapes. Forests provide the cover, and waste grain supplies food in the fall and winter.

Graph showing rise of hunted turkeys in spring in Wisconsin, a steady climb that began at 0 in 1986
From original graph by Wisconsin DNR
Wild turkey hunters in Wisconsin scored big in 2008: 52,880 birds.

Wild turkeys also proved able to withstand intense cold, and now live in the frigid northern stretches of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. We’ve also read that since 2000, coyotes have colonized the ultra-cold city of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

1 turkey = 1 grouse?

Wildlife swaperoos played an important supporting role in the reintroduction effort. In the early 1960s, for example, Missouri began trading some of its 3,000 wild turkeys for ruffed grouse, otters, pheasants, prairie chickens, even fish.

Setting smarter rules on hunting, and putting the right birds with the right habitat, "was the secret to the dramatic expansion during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when wild turkeys were translocated into lots of places," says Porter, who has studied the bird in New York State. "Much of the Northeast and Great Lakes region now has wild turkeys, because of that research, and the state agencies, and the hunters who provided the dollars." (The 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act taxes ammunition to fund wildlife research and land acquisition.)

"We went from, nobody really knows, an estimated one-quarter million in the 1940s, to 7 million now," Porter says.

Domestic turkeys are sometimes slandered as the epsilon semi-morons of the animal world, but their wild ancestors are hardly dummies on drumsticks. "The wild turkey proved quite good at dealing with people, cats dogs, even autos," says Porter. "If you talk to people who hunt turkey in the spring, they will say wild turkeys may have a brain the size of a walnut, but they use every bit of it. They are exceptionally wary, extremely well tuned to their environment; they are very tough to hunt, and that is what drives the passion for hunting them. If they have food and protection from unregulated hunting, they are a really adaptable species."

President Ford leaning on table smiling at white feathered turkey, packaged turkey also on table
President Gerald Ford at the ceremonial pre-Thanksgiving turkey-pardon in 1975. Makes us wonder what crime was committed by the turkey in the body bag...

Passing the bottleneck

Although wild turkeys, as a whole, have substantial genetic diversity, a localized lack of diversity may be causing disease and interfering with reproduction among some reintroduced turkeys. "There are populations in marginal habitats that might look as if they would sustain the population, but are disconnected, and over time they do not do as well," says Gene Rhodes, a professor of forestry and natural resources who has studied wild turkey genetics at Purdue University.

Most reintroduced populations originated with 12 or 15 relocated birds, which were often genetically monotonous. "The way we put them back created pockets of populations, which all retain the genetic signatures," says Rhodes. "We have seen populations that you can still [genetically] attribute to a source 30 year later ... and some are lower in diversity than we would like."

Rhodes expects the diversity problem to solve itself among populations that are able to interbreed. Some wildlife agencies have begun to address the issue by moving birds and their genes to struggling, isolated populations, but the necessary expertise is fading. "We have gone from 30 to 40 years where many states were trapping, transporting and reintroducing turkeys, to just a few states doing that, and we can lose the institutional memory" needed to keep wild turkeys healthy.

Nobody is worrying about genetic diversity among coyotes. How have they managed to colonize most of the United States?

Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2021, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.