Two years ago, a birder from the Rice area, north of St. Cloud, called to say he had just counted 57 wild turkeys in his yard. I have seen flocks as large as 100 near St. Peter. Standing 3 to 4 feet tall and weighing from 8 to 18 pounds, wild turkeys are probably the largest birds attracted to our back-yard feeding stations. They like cracked and whole corn. On their own, they prefer acorns but will eat any kind of seed as well as fruits, insects and other small animals. These large birds roost high in the trees at night.
The wild turkey's home range is the eastern, southern and southwestern United States stretching down into Mexico. There is no positive evidence that this species lived in Minnesota before European settlement, but they were introduced into the southern part of the state as far back as 1936. Now, after a series of reintroduction efforts in the 1960s and '70s, they're permanent residents in some woodlands and along forest edges, mostly across the southern third of the state. As winters have grown a bit milder, they continue to expand their range. Minnesota's wild turkey population grew from a few small flocks in the 1970s to about 60,000 birds by 2006.
The domestic turkey is a subspecies that had been tamed, and was taken from Mexico to Europe by the Spaniards in the 16th century. There was confusion from the start regarding the origin of this great bird. It was initially thought to have originated from the country of Turkey. Hence, the name we use for the bird.
In 1782, the turkey lost by a single vote to the bald eagle to become our national bird or national symbol.
Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.