The turkey is a big colorful and meaty bird that makes the table festive for Thanksgiving dinner. It is native to North America and the Indians of the Southwest had domesticated the turkey long before the Spaniards arrived. The Native Americans raised turkeys for their feathers and for their meat. The Spanish took turkeys back to Spain and from there they were distributed across Europe. The early English settlers brought turkeys to New England only to find the woods full of wild turkeys.
When Iowa was being settled wild game animals, including turkeys, were exploited. Hunting animals was done at all times of the year and no limits were set. In 1857 a law was passed by the Iowa legislature to limit the hunting of turkeys and other game animals, but the laws were not enforced and the population of game animals declined. Turkeys were also affected by the loss of habitat. The forestlands were cleared for farming and timber was cut for construction of housing and railroad development so the birds lost needed nesting ground and feeding areas. By 1900 turkeys were only found in the southeastern section of Iowa and their numbers were declining. The last turkey officially recorded in the state was in Lucas County in 1910. Ironically, the state passed a law in 1924 to totally ban the hunting turkeys.
However, these magnificent game birds have been returned to Iowa after several attempts to restock. In the mid 1960s some birds from Missouri were released in the southeast Iowa and the flock flourished. A few years later another group was released in Stephens State Forest in Lucas County and they also did very well. From these small original flocks turkeys were captured and released in other areas of the state. The main restricting factor for a turkey population is habitat. The first limited hunting season was set in 1974 and the birds have done so well that there is now a fall and spring hunting season. I have seen turkeys all along the Raccoon River Valley. They are easier to spot when floating in a canoe than walking in the woods. They are wary, nervous, and constantly on the move and have keen senses of hearing and vision. The wild turkey is a great hiker; it runs better than it flies. In summer turkeys live in family flocks; the sexes commonly separate in fall and winter.
Their favorite food is acorns, but their diet also includes insects, fruits, seeds, berries, and grain. Young chicks feed primarily on insects to get the protein they need for growth.
In the spring the female makes a nest on the ground, usually next to a log, tree trunk, or brush pile and lays from nine to eighteen beige colored eggs. She incubates them for twenty-eight days. The most important factor in success of raising the chick to maturity is the weather. A cold wet spring is devastating to the young chicks.
When the chicks are hatched they are able to run in a few days and in two weeks they can make short flights. They stay with the hen throughout the winter. The hen turkey does all of the work of nesting and caring for her brood of a dozen or more chicks.
The males, or “Tom’s” have a wing span of five feet, weight up to twenty pounds, and can live for twelve years. The males beard is his most distinguishing marking, it is made up of bristle like hairs that come out of the center of his breast; which never molts and grows continually.
The turkey is an all American bird, a provider of feathers and meat for feasting. It is the symbol of Thanksgiving- long may the turkey gobble. Thanks to Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources good game management of these birds many Iowa families will enjoy having a wild turkey on their Thanksgiving table.