Lisa Stanford and her family were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at her mother's house in Bloomington a few years ago when they looked out the big window and witnessed a different sort of Turkey Day celebration in the back yard.
As they were preparing to dig into the roasted bird on the table, 15 wild turkeys boldly strutted around the bird feeder "as if to say, 'Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!" Stanford said. "The irony didn't go unnoticed."
The restoration of Minnesota's wild turkey population is one of the state's great conservation success stories, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Thirty years ago, there were just a few birds in the state. Today there are tens of thousands, from Duluth down through the metro area to the Iowa border.
In the past two weeks, a gang of turkeys stripped crab apple trees on the grounds of Bloomington's airport Hilton Hotel of their fruit. Turkeys walk through back yards in Eden Prairie, eat grit on roadsides by Bush Lake and last year, pecked at car tires and chased children in Blaine and Maple Grove. In 2005, a turkey sunned itself on the busy brick plaza of Hennepin County Government Center in the heart of Minneapolis.
The birds are still rare enough that most people get a thrill when they spot one. Turkeys are unlikely to become the urban pest that Canada geese are, said Bryan Lueth, DNR wildlife officer for the metro area that includes Ramsey, Dakota and much of Hennepin County.
"They're a lot like other nuisance urban wildlife," Lueth said. "They're sort of generalists that do well as long as they have access to food. ... In urban areas, predators are almost nonexistent, except for coyotes. We leash our dogs. Turkeys learn that humans aren't much of a threat and they learn to ignore us."
But the birds don't do well in winters when the snow is deep. The high populations in the metro area may partly be linked to snow-scarce winters when turkeys could easily find acorns and other food on the ground where they feed, Lueth said.
On the rebound
Turkeys were gone from much of Minnesota for most of the last century. After attempts to seed the state with hand-raised birds failed, Minnesota traded 85 ruffed grouse for 29 wild turkeys from Missouri and released the wild birds in the southeastern corner of the state in 1973. Because of the efforts of the DNR, the National Wild Turkey Federation, conservation groups and cooperative farmers who leave some corn standing in the winter, wild turkeys have been seen in about the lower two-thirds of the state, Lueth said.
In Bloomington, Stanford grew up on Glen Wilding Place near Nine Mile Creek. In the 1960s and '70s, she said, she rarely saw a raccoon, let alone any deer. That changed in the 1980s. The turkeys showed up around 2000, and have kept coming back because Stanford's mother, Elizabeth, keeps bird feeders stocked with corn and sunflower.
They visit nearly every day. In the spring, the tom turkeys' heads turn bright blue and they strut around with fanned tails as they look for mates. Their brown feathers glint bronze, copper, green, blue and purple in the right light. Stanford said the birds have never been aggressive, though you have to watch where you step in the yard.
Turkeys also are thriving at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington, where they can be seen mixing with chickadees and woodpeckers at bird feeders just outside the glass walls of the Visitor Center. Last week, a group of nine jakes -- immature males who have flocked together for the winter -- clustered around and atop feeders. As they sauntered down a trail and back into the woods, a couple of the birds stopped to stare at and peck at their reflections in the windows.
The turkeys showed up four or five years ago, said Steve Sutter, a volunteer who works at the refuge. While the birds are often seen near the feeders and occasionally tolerate photographers who get within a few yards of them, they're wary in the woods. Sutter and another refuge volunteer said they've walked many miles of the refuge's trails but never seen turkeys in the woods, except to rarely spot them roosting in trees.
"They keep that wildness," he said. "I love to see them. They're pretty American."
The nation's bird?
In fact, Benjamin Franklin famously mused in a 1784 letter to his daughter that the turkey would have been a better symbol as the national bird than the bald eagle. Though he apparently never publicly fought for the turkey, he wrote that the eagle was "a Bird of bad moral Character. [As a bird that often eats carrion or snatches food from other birds,] He does not get his Living honestly."
The turkey, he said, "is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
Sutter is a fan of both eagles and turkeys, and enjoys seeing both at the refuge, calling it "the rewilding of the suburbs." He deflects talk of which bird is more appropriate as the national symbol.
"The decision has been made, and I'll back it up," he said with a smile.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380