John Winkelman

John Winkelman

The recent deer hunting season was good for me, but I saw a lot more turkeys than deer when I was in the woods. I am certainly not complaining about that. Watching a flock or a few turkeys wander through the forest with no idea you are there is a real treat.

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on the history of turkeys in the United States and in Missouri in particular. While they may have been plentiful here when the pilgrims and native Americans were celebrating the first harvest feast, it is not likely that the big bird was on the menu. The same goes for candied yams, pumpkin pie and that jiggly cranberry thing.

Researchers believe that in the 1800s, 10 million turkeys called North America home. By 1950, their population was reduced to about 300,000 throughout the continent.

In Missouri, the decimation was similarly significant. There were about 250,000 birds in the late 1800s, but an estimated population of only 3,000 60 years later. Those survivors were isolated to the most remote regions of the Ozarks. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 turkeys state wide.

Unregulated market hunting put the biggest hurt on the populations, but habitat destruction took its toll as timber was clear cut, open grazing destroyed remote forests and people moved to settle areas that had previously been mostly wild.

As early as 1925, efforts were made to limit the decline by restocking the population with farm-raised birds. Those efforts were not successful, and it was determined that only true wild turkeys would survive and thrive.

In 1937 voters approved establishing the Conservation Commission and turkey hunting was prohibited in the state.

Trapping and relocating began in the 1950s after the state Department of Conservation bought large tracts of land to collect birds and provided protection for them to survive in different parts of the state.

By the spring of 1979, turkeys had been moved to 142 areas in 87 counties. Since then, Missouri has provided turkeys for other states’ restoration efforts.

Turkey hunting season returned in April 1960 for three days in 14 counties. By 1985, restoration efforts allowed hunting in all 114 counties.

Firearms hunting seasons are held for three weeks in the spring with hunters allowed to take two male turkeys, and the entire month of October in the fall with a limit of two birds. Archers can harvest two turkeys of either sex throughout the entire bowhunting season from Sept. 15 through Jan. 15.

There are six subspecies of wild turkeys across North America, and Missouri is home to the Eastern subspecies. Related to pheasants, grouse and quail, turkeys are the largest wild birds on the continent, with adult males weighing up to 30 pounds and hens closer to 10 pounds.

Male turkeys are called toms in general, but further classified as gobblers as adults and jakes as juveniles. This time of year, the gobblers group together while the jakes hang mostly with the flocks of hens. Each time I saw a turkey during the deer season, they were segregated just that way.

During the spring, winter flocks disperse and gobblers battle each other for breeding opportunities. Hens make nests and lay clutches of up to a dozen eggs that they incubate for about 28 days. After they hatch, the hen provides all the protection she can from predators and poor weather.

The turkeys that most people will enjoy for their Thanksgiving feasts will only slightly resemble the wild birds in Missouri. While the grocery store variety are bred and raised for incredible size and roundness, wild turkeys are more streamlined. The feathers on wild turkeys are often bright and colorful. Domestic birds look less appealing on the outside.

Wild turkeys are susceptible to disease transmission from domestic fowl, but fortunately wild and domestic birds rarely come in contact with each other. Releasing domestic birds into the wild is illegal in part to protect the wild turkeys from disease. 

The opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors and spend time among our natural resources are certainly good reasons to be thankful this time of year and always. Happy Thanksgiving!

John J. Winkelman is community engagement manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.