There is a lot of turkey talk in my house lately—from handprint turkey crafts to gobbling impersonations and heated discussions of who gets the wishbone this year. Come November, most of us think of turkeys as the centerpiece of a delicious feast. You might be surprised to learn that this symbol of our American heritage is not only found on platters but also resides in Lake County, Illinois woodlands; and their gobbling is growing!
The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most abundant of five turkey subspecies found in the United States and can be found throughout the eastern half of the country. These birds were abundant in our area long ago, but due to habitat loss and hunting they were extirpated from Illinois by 1910. Shortly after the wild populations were lost, efforts to release farm-raised turkeys began. However, released birds were never able to reproduce in the wild. In the late 1950s, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources began reintroducing wild turkeys in the southern part of the state and their populations boomed.
Today, thanks to habitat protection and regulated hunting, wildlife biologists estimate that eastern wild turkeys can be found in every county of Illinois with a total population of about 150,000 turkeys statewide. State researchers have learned that turkeys can adapt to smaller plots of land than was originally believed. This might be one reason why they are appearing more frequently in suburban areas, like this guy who has been pecking around the Lindenhurst area in recent weeks:
While they can be spotted along roadways, wild turkeys require mature upland woods with fields and clearings. Using their strong feet, turkeys scratch through leaf litter in search of acorns, hickory nuts, berries and the occasional invertebrate. Turkeys swallow nuts whole, crushing the shells in their powerful gizzards (the part of the turkey my mother always threatened to put in the gravy).
In the winter, wild turkeys form large flocks. As the sun goes down, they fly up, branch by branch to roost together in the nut-bearing trees that provide the bulk of their diet. If threatened by coyotes, raccoons or great horned owls, male turkeys (a.k.a. toms or gobblers) run away at rates up to 12 mph, while females (or hens) evade predators by flying away at an amazing speed—up to 50 mph.
The gobbling and strutting displays we associate with turkeys don’t begin until early spring, but winter is a great time to see flocks of turkeys silhouetted in the trees. Visit a Lake County Forest Preserve near the Wisconsin border, such as Gander Mountain or Van Patten Woods, for your best bet at seeing wild turkeys in action. Start a new family tradition and join our educators for the annual Thanksgiving for Nature Scavenger Hunt at Hastings Lake, where groups follow fun outdoor clues followed by a warm drink near a crackling fire.
This year, as I sit down to dinner with my family, I will be thankful for the farm-raised turkey on my plate and the eastern wild turkeys in our woodlands.