The closest encounter I’d had with a turkey in recent memory was at lunch, sandwiched between two pieces of wheat bread and a slice of cheddar cheese. I was startled, then, to see one (covered in brown feathers as opposed to cheese) observing me from afar as I slid past on my skis one cold evening in the Arb. The wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is actually not so strange of a sight around campus. It can be spotted in the Arb’s floodplain forest, upland forests, and at field edges year round.
Weighing 10 to 25 pounds, these sizable birds take advantage of the area’s bountiful food sources – grasses, buds, berries, insects, acorns, and even frogs and snakes. In turn, the Arb’s owls, eagles, coyotes and foxes incorporate turkey into their diet. The the wild turkey is now part of southern Minnesota’s ecosystem, this has not always been the case. Native to Minnesota, the turkey population disappeared from the state in the late 1800s.
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources began efforts to restore the turkey population in the early 1970s, releasing twenty-nine adult birds into the wild. With a population now over seventy thousand, wild turkeys have truly returned as a regular part of the state’s wildlife sightings, even in urban areas. Urban turkeys (particularly males) have a tendency to grow acclimated to humans and can, on occasion, become a nuisance by roosting on roofs or chasing people or pets. However, wild turkeys do more good than harm overall, and their rapid population growth is one of Minnesota’s greatest restoration success stories.
The next time you explore the Arb, remember that owls are not the only exciting bird to spot out there. Keep an eye out for the red head and distinctive gobble of the wild male turkey, and you can be the judge as to whether Ben Franklin was right in promoting it as the national bird.