Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Rives Township, Mich. — The wild turkey’s comeback in Michigan has some crowing, but it’s also ruffling a few feathers.

The sometimes noisy birds are plentiful throughout the state and hunters bag about 40,000 a year. That’s quite the turnaround for the state. By the early 1900s, gobblers and hens had been wiped out by habitat loss and unregulated hunting.

“We went from having lots of wild turkeys to zero turkeys by the turn of the century,” said Al Stewart, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist. “Michigan wasn’t alone in this decline of wild turkeys. It was one of the later states to lose their birds.”

Efforts to restore Michigan’s wild turkey population have been so successful, the bird’s numbers have reached an estimated 200,000. To control the number of birds, the state has two hunting seasons annually. The fall season ended Nov. 14.

The return of the birds, which average 20 pounds and can grow up to 4 feet long, has not been welcome by everyone.

Farmers, such as Gerry Surbrook, owner of Grand Valley Farms in Rives Township in Jackson County, said the fowl eat wheat and pull corn out of the ground soon after the crops begin to sprout.

The birds also like to make nests in the farm’s hay fields.

“They don’t cause a huge amount of damage, but it’s there,” Surbrook said. “In a year when wheat was $8 to $10 a bushel and if you lost 10 to 20 bushels to turkeys, you’re looking at several hundred dollars.”

Wild turkeys have caused problems for others.

Two of the birds became a traffic hazard in Bangor Township in Bay County, according to media reports. The turkeys hung out along a busy business corridor, pecking gravel, walking through parking lots and startling motorists. DNR officials said the birds liked the area because people fed them.

After several unsuccessful attempts to capture the birds, DNR officials shot one and drove the other away.

Residents in other states report similar nuisance issues.

In Maine, wild turkeys have been reported eating crops and fruit, ruining gardens, crashing into cars and motorcycles and even smashing through suburban windows.

Turkeys in one Staten Island, N.Y., neighborhood have become so widespread that city officials rounded some up and slaughtered them, causing a backlash among animal rights supporters.

With the national wild turkey population at about 7 million, many states are expanding hunting seasons or increasing the number of birds each hunter can kill.

Rebound began in 1950s

Wild turkeys are among the largest birds in North America and one of the most widely distributed game birds on the continent.

“Wild turkeys are wildly popular animals,” said Shawn Riley, a professor with Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who has studied turkey management in Michigan. “It’s a native species that’s part of our Midwestern landscape.”

Before European settlers came to Michigan, it’s estimated the state’s wild turkey population was about 90,000, Stewart said. They lived primarily in a zone south of Bay City and west to Muskegon, he said.

But the numbers began to dwindle as settlers encroached on the bird’s habitat and hunters harvested the turkeys to feed the growing number of colonists.

“The last wild turkey on record for Michigan was taken in 1897 in Arlington Township in Van Buren County,” Stewart said.

Through the years, there were attempts to re-establish the bird in Michigan. But the first successes didn’t happen until 1954 after biologists learned populations could be restored by capturing wild birds and moving them to viable habitats, Stewart said.

“Wild turkeys are an excellent source of food, and they’re beautiful to watch,” said Tony Snyder, president of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Michigan chapter.

Based in Edgefield, S.C., the federation is dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of America’s hunting heritage.

Michigan ranks seventh in the nation for the number of wild turkeys killed by hunters, according to the federation. The top turkey hunting states, in order, are Missouri, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New York and Mississippi, the group said.

This year’s spring hunting season had an estimated economic impact of $126 million, Stewart said.

Managing the numbers

Surbrook said wild turkeys around his farm aren’t as big of a worry as other animals are, for the moment.

Surbrook’s Grand Valley Farms is primarily a dairy farm, but the family also grows cash crops such as corn and wheat. The farm — 800 acres plus another rented 60 — is surrounded by marshes and woods where turkeys love to live, he said.

Snyder said it’s likely wild turkeys are getting the blame for the problems other animals make for people.

“Turkeys are active in the day and that’s what people see out there in fields,” he said. “They don’t see the 14 raccoons out there at night tearing a cornfield up.”

And as for the other problems the turkeys may create, Snyder said, trap-and-transfer programs and hunting can fix those.

The state’s largest advocacy group for farmers, the Michigan Farm Bureau, favors effective wildlife management to deal with problematic wild turkeys.

It’s position on the birds is the same it has for all wildlife, bureau officials said.

“Wildlife is an important part of Michigan’s outdoor heritage and economy,” according to the Lansing-based group’s wildlife management policy. “Sound biological science must be used to manage all wildlife populations to maintain proper balance in numbers, reduce damage to property, and control disease transmission. We believe hunting and trapping should be protected as the primary tool for wildlife management.”

“I don’t know if there’s a solution to any of these human-wildlife conflicts, particularly in the suburban environment, that is going to make everyone happy,” MSU’s Riley said.

Turkey fixin’s

  • Males are called gobblers and females are called hens. 
  • A group of turkeys is called a “rafter” and their babies are called “poults.” 
  • An adult male can be 4 feet long from beak to tail and can weigh between 15-24 pounds. 
  • Turkeys prefer to live in open fields or woods, and they’re most active during the daytime. At night, they roost in trees. 
  • The birds are omnivores, but primarily eat berries, grasses and nuts as well as insects and amphibians. 
  • Wild turkeys breed in the early spring and they raise one brood per season. Female turkeys will lay up to 15 eggs in a nest, usually a shallow depression in the ground surrounded by deep grass or brush. 
  • Bet you didn’t know: They’re social animals who like to be around each other. 
  • They have keen eyesight and hearing. 
  • They’re swift runners and can fly at speeds of up to 55 mph over short distances. 

Source: Detroit News research 
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