By Jim Zitzelsberger
Once upon a time, and it does not seem like THAT long ago, I was a youngster roaming the wilds of northeast Wisconsin. The wilds, back then, consisted of about a section of land including fields, woodlands and a small swampy area somewhere near the middle. A narrow town lane ran through it at the half-mile point and farm buildings dotted the surrounding gravel roads. Like an unbridled patchwork quilt, 5 to 10 acres of woodland would give way to “back 40s” of 10, 20 and sometimes even 40 acres, which in turn bumped up against more woodland or slid down into wetlands and creeks before starting over once more. It was a beautiful piece of Wisconsin, especially in the fall when the colors reached a crescendo of brilliance and the distant farm buildings could only be seen with effort through cracks in the dense cover.
That mile square was teeming with rabbits and squirrels, red-tailed hawks and owls, coveys of Hungarian partridge, a few pheasants, and a good number of deer. There were raccoons, opossums and foxes living there too, and probably a few coyotes although I do not recall ever seeing one. That does not mean, however, that they were not there — but I never saw one. On the other hand, what I also know was never there and I never saw any, nor did anyone else, were wild turkeys. In the 1950s and ‘60s there were no wild turkeys left in Wisconsin to the best of my knowledge.
As the crow flies, I now live about 25 miles from where I grew up and the land here is very similar in topography and population density. And here and now, about the only thing that I do not see on my farm or surrounding land are Hungarian partridge. The rest are all here in somewhat abundant numbers and I see them all at one time or another. But what I now see the most of are wild turkeys as their numbers generally keep increasing. To say that they are taking over the natural balance of the area might be alarmist, but the fact is that their numbers are a testament to one of the greatest restoration programs in conservation history. So, hurray for them because they are magnificent birds and it is a pleasure to occasionally see one or two coming down from a roosting tree, darting through the woods or crossing the driveway trailed by a half-dozen poults. Unfortunately, “occasionally” does not quite cover the subject when, in all honesty, that restoration success has become a bit of a nuisance around here.
Four or five years ago, sitting quietly in my tree stand while deer hunting, I counted 43 of the big birds below me as they came down from their overnight haunts and began their daily trek in search of food. Sometime after that, I called the Department of Natural Resources to ask what I might do in the event that the flock morphed into a hundred birds or more the next year and began to use my wheat and soybean fields as their private domains. The answers I received, unfortunately, were not very accommodating (at least to me) and I waited with some trepidation for events to unfold. And unfold they did, as a good many of them did not survive that cold winter and their numbers have been lower ever since. Lower, that is, until this past summer when the growing season must have again been highly supportive for Meleagris gallopavo.
Talking with my neighbor the other night, he mentioned that he had counted 43 of the big birds in this new flock roaming around his property and mine. I related how I had counted that many a few years ago but believe the current number to be 43 — plus one. He laughed and opened another beer saying, “It doesn’t make much difference, one more or less.” I agreed, except that it put me back on that precarious farming cliff caught between the flock and a hard place. Let’s see: 44 divided by 2 times 6 or 7…
In something of a quandary, I do not want to see any more of them succumb to the winter elements, but I do not want to see a hundred or more of them coursing through my fields next summer and fall either. It is a problem because when I fill the bird feeders in the backyard I must also leave some extra on the ground for their capacious cousins or the smaller birds will be losing out. The truth is that when the flock gathers around my bird-feeding station at least once a day, they consume everything in sight to the tune of about 15 pounds of corn, sorghum and sunflower seed. Add that to their natural curiosity and I am left with plenty of their calling cards scattered profusely on my back deck and nearby lawn. I do not begrudge the turkeys’ dinner, but their voracious appetites have led me to think that they must see this as manna from heaven or the greatest smorgasbord of all time. Mind you, I have not put up an “all you can eat,” but it seems to me to be redundant anyway.
Notwithstanding, I still have hope that perhaps in spring they will pair up and go live on their own or move in with new relatives a ways away. Or maybe they will tire of the local cuisine and seek out some hoity-toity food shop more to their liking and much further down the road. Or perhaps they will simply need a change of scenery and move on — Florida would seem like a nice place right now. In the meantime, at the first hint of a winter thaw, I got the garden hose out and removed as much of their evidence as I could without discouraging their attendance. Most birders will be happy to know that I did not scare them, and the whole flock has continued to be in the plate line ever since. You can count about 30 turkeys in the picture above but there were more around the yard waiting — waiting, I suppose, for a shorter line and/or a refill of their breakfast bowls following that overnight snow when I took the picture.
Finally, it is doubtful that saying anything about thanksgiving is likely to be in a turkey’s state of mind so I am not waiting for an ‘atta-boy from them for helping them through the winter. And as someone who prefers almost anything other than turkey for a Thanksgiving meal, they are safe on that account too. It does not leave many alternatives except for the coyotes that are occasionally seen around here, but turkeys are hard to fool with that keen eyesight. Investing in a birdseed company has also come up as something of an option ...