Environmental Almanac

Celebrating the return of wild turkeys in Illinois

Wild turkeys were extirpated from Illinois in the 20th century, but they've been brought back and they're here to stay.

With all of the Thanksgiving press devoted to domesticated turkeys—how many we’re going to eat next week, how best to cook them, etcetera—you probably weren’t aware of this fact, but we’re living in the age of the wild turkey. That’s according to Patrick Hubert, who was formerly a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and who I spoke with on this topic some years back. In his words, “It is a good time to be alive if you are a turkey, turkey hunter, or turkey biologist in Illinois.”

This has not always been the case.

Wild turkeys were abundant in the state prior to European settlement, but their numbers declined steadily during the 1800s due to over-hunting and the destruction of forests, which are a necessary component of turkey habitat. The state legislature closed turkey hunting in 1903, in an effort to preserve remaining populations. But that measure proved to be too little too late, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois altogether.

Some turkey habitat was regained as marginal farms in the southern and western parts of the state were abandoned and returned to forest during the first half of the twentieth century. This fact gave hope to state efforts at turkey reintroduction, which began in 1959. The birds involved in this program were obtained from other states where turkey populations had already rebounded in exchange for animals that were doing well here—Canada geese, largemouth bass, and bobwhite quail. From the 1970s through the year 2003, Illinois moved turkeys around within the state from areas where they were thriving to suitable habitat where they had not yet moved in.

Illinois now boasts wild turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at around a hundred thousand. Harvests by hunters vary from one year to the next but they’ve been strong for more than a decade; this year’s spring take statewide was just under fifteen thousand birds.

Whether you hunt them or appreciate them from a distance, wild turkeys are fascinating birds. For one thing, they’re big. Adult males, or gobblers, measure about four feet from bill tip to tail tip and weigh from seventeen to twenty-one pounds on average. Hens are smaller, measuring closer to three feet long and generally weighing from eight to eleven pounds, but they are still large birds. Despite their size, wild turkeys can also be very fast when they need to be. They can do twenty-five miles per hour running, and they can fly at speeds of up to fifty-miles an hour in short bursts to escape from predators.

While most of us weren’t noticing their comeback, grain farmers were developing the suspicion that wild turkeys were damaging crops. A 2004 study by researchers in Indiana exonerated them on that charge, though.

Turkeys had been tagged as suspects because they show up during daylight hours in corn and soybean fields where crop damage has occurred at night. The real culprits turn out to be deer and raccoons, whose nocturnal activity accounted for ninety-five percent of the damage in the fields studied. The suspect turkeys, it turns out, were dining on waste grain and insects.

Would the wild turkey have made a better national symbol than the bald eagle? Most people know that Benjamin Franklin thought so. I’ve never been able to see that myself, but I take great pleasure in knowing that they’re back to stay in Illinois.