Let’s Talk Turkey

Let’s talk turkey. Fall is the season for this noble animal, an historic bird and Benjamin Franklin’s pick for national bird. Turkeys have run wild through the United States for thousands of years. There’s even a fairly detailed fossil record of early turkey ancestors in states from Virginia to California.

wild turkeysThe first settlers to cross the Mississippi River into what would become Iowa found wild turkeys in abundance. Settler’s journals tell us that turkeys were found where there was oak-hickory forest (one of the wild turkey’s favorite foods are acorns) and that turkey was a staple in their diet. Turkey populations depleted as did our forests.

The Eastern wild turkey was extirpated from northeast Iowa by 1854 and very low numbers remained in southern Iowa by 1900. Initial restocking efforts were attempted with pen-raised turkeys in the 1920s and 30s. These releases were assumed to have failed. In the early 1960s other subspecies of wild turkey were released in Allamakee, Lucas, and Monroe Counties with limited success.

In 1966, 11 Eastern wild turkeys were released at Shimek State Forest. These birds were wild-raised and caught in Missouri. The population of these birds took off! By the winter of 1971-72, wild turkey numbers in the state were large and stable enough to trap and relocate to other suitable habitats within the state. The Eastern subspecies has adapted well to habitat conditions in Iowa and by 1980, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was able to trap wild turkeys and use them to trade for other Iowa-extirpated wildlife like prairie chickens, ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse, and river otters.

This year before ‘Turkey Day’ gather your students and talk about turkeys. Ask them what they think of when they hear the word ‘turkey.’ Are their thoughts about domestic or wild turkeys? What is the difference?

Use Project WILD’s “Let’s Talk Turkey” to explore the history of wild turkeys through historical periods of abundance, decline, domestication, plus restoration and management.


Cross-reference to these units for additional information: