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With habitat, turkeys have gone wild in Ohio, Michigan

By Matt Markey • Apr 17, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Before this part of the continent was settled, wild turkeys used to wander throughout the landscape of what we now know as Ohio and Michigan. The extensive forests of the region provided food and plenty of prime habitat for these large birds.

But as the push west gained momentum, forests were cleared for agriculture, and the early settlers found wild turkeys to be a convenient and appealing food source. The loss of vast sections of habitat, coupled with unrestricted hunting, caused wild turkey populations in the Midwest to plummet to an extensive degree by the early part of the 20th century.

The wild turkey was considered gone from Ohio and Michigan before the start of World War I. A few birds likely remained in some of the most remote and inaccessible patches of habitat, but wild turkeys were officially listed as extirpated, which is a local or regional extinction.

Slowly, some of our formerly forested areas recovered and — following the end of World War II — wildlife biologists learned more about these unusual birds. Restoration programs started to bring the wild turkey back. Habitat projects were made a priority.

Today there are established wild turkey populations in every state but Alaska. In Ohio, all 88 counties have wild turkeys, while these birds are found in every Michigan county in the Lower Peninsula, and in a few of the Upper Peninsula counties in the agricultural belt across the southern part of that more harsh tract.

A large part of the credit for one of the most successful wildlife recovery programs in history goes to the National Wild Turkey Federation, which was founded about 45 years ago when the wild turkey population in all of North America was likely down to just 1.5 million birds. Today that number is pushing 7 million and continuing to trend upward.

“What we’ve seen over and over is that if you give wild turkeys a place to live — habitat — then they’ll do just fine,” said Jeff Wright of rural Grand Rapids, the chairman of the Maumee Valley Chapter of the NWTF.

“They’ve come back from the brink with one of the most dramatic turnarounds in history. It has been phenomenal what has happened, through a lot of hard work and cooperation between the state wildlife folks and organizations like NWTF.”

Despite that very bleak picture just a few decades ago, and a significant amount of skepticism on the part of some as to whether wild turkey populations could ever rebound to the point that limited hunting could occur, the big birds have outflown all of the expectations.

In 1956, Ohio Division of Wildlife biologists were able to obtain wild turkeys that had been trapped in West Virginia, Missouri, and Kentucky, then release these birds on state forest ground in Vinton County, west of Athens in the Hocking Hills region.

After more releases in other parts of the state, a very limited hunting season began in 1966. A joint venture with volunteers from the NWTF helped spread the wealth and transplant wild turkeys throughout the state. Ohio’s wild turkey population is estimated at more than 200,000 today, with the bulk of those birds found in the eastern and southern sections of the state.

“Ohio has a good population of wild turkeys and offers some great opportunities for a spring hunt,” said James Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “The wild turkey is a true conservation success story ... and we hope to continue to build on our turkey-hunting tradition.”

Wild turkey numbers and sightings are definitely on the rise in northwest Ohio, where the birds are often found in patches of habitat bordering large agricultural tracts or along river or stream corridors.

In Michigan, the concerted restoration effort began around 1954, with wild turkeys that had been trapped in Pennsylvania and released near Kalamazoo.

A decade later, the Michigan turkey population had reached about 2,000 birds. More transplants were brought in from Iowa and Missouri, and the population grew to the point where Michigan biologists could trap and relocate birds within the state.

Michigan’s wild turkey population is also estimated at around 200,000 birds, and both states have spring and fall wild turkey hunting seasons.

Consult the Ohio Hunting & Trapping Regulations handbook or the Michigan Spring Turkey Digest for all of the hunting dates, zones, legal hunting hours, and bag limits.

But don’t expect an easy hunt. In the woods or in the meadow, it is definitely “advantage: wild turkeys.” They use exceptional vision and hearing to thrive in a landscape with lots of predators.

“Wild turkeys have the ability to detect movement and assimilate detail very quickly,” said Bob Eriksen, retired regional biologist for the NWTF. “Wild turkeys overcome their monocular vision by turning their heads to better judge distance. The bird also has better peripheral vision than humans.”

These birds can rotate their head to gain a 360-degree field of vision, Eriksen said.

“Their exceptional eyesight allows them to assimilate danger so quickly,” said Wright, who recommends that first-time wild turkey hunters seek the advice and coaching of an experienced hunter.

“I think a lot of people would like to try it and they should try it, but they need to know going in that there’s quite a learning curve,” he said. “You don’t usually get real lucky real quick, so it’s important to have a mentor to help people along.”

Wright said many hunters find wild turkeys present the most challenging hunt in this part of the country, but also the most rewarding one.

“With turkey hunting, you are really matching wits and going against their natural instincts when you try and call one in,” he said. “But there is really nothing like that moment when a wild turkey is strutting toward you.”


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