Wild Turkey

This spring we have been treated to numerous turkey sightings at Goose Pond Sanctuary.  A flock of about 75 birds wintered 2.5 miles southeast of Goose Pond. Winter flocks spread out in early spring, and in the last week in April, we spotted a 11 gobblers in Hopkins Road Prairie near a stand of experimental elm trees on the UW Arlington Agricultural Research Farm.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

In the past two weeks, we have been seeing a gobbler and three hens south of our Kampen Road residence.  On May 4, two hens walked down our driveway, within 10 feet of the front porch!  On May 5th, there was a gobbler, hen, and two jakes (one-year-old males) 60 yards from the house. Mark used the barn as a blind, probably the world’s largest turkey “blind”, and photographed the gobbler at 40 yards (below).

  Photo by Mark Martin

Photo by Mark Martin

A.W. Schorger researched wild turkey records, mostly accounts in weekly newspapers, from the 1840’s to their extirpation in the 1890’s and wrote the History of the Wild Turkey in Wisconsin.  He described the early nineteenth-century range as south of “a line running southwest from Green Bay through Green Lake and Sauk Counties, thence due west along the Minnesota-Iowa boundary.”  A.W. found that in the winter of 1842-1843 that the deep crusted snow made food hard to find and whole flocks were wiped out in large areas. Schorger could not find any records of turkeys in Dane County. After major die offs it would take turkeys many years, maybe decades, to expand into areas where they were absent. Turkeys were sought after by early settlers and were easy to kill when found night roosting in trees.  

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The Wisconsin Conservation Department released game farm turkeys a number of years between 1929 and 1957.  Mark remembers attending a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology field trip in the early 1970’s to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to search for turkeys.  By 1973 this population was down to 73 individuals.   In 1976, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began releasing wild caught turkeys from Missouri to Wisconsin and the rest is history.

It took a couple decades for turkeys to arrive on the Empire Prairie. Turkeys were probably very rare at Goose Pond in the 1800s and were likely found on the edge of the Empire Prairie near oak savanna habitat since they roost in trees and like to feed on acorns.  The turkeys around are house can be seen in late afternoon heading to our small group of bur oaks on the hill above the west pond.  In the early morning they leave the oaks and head to a corn food plot just south of the barn.  

For over five years we have seen just one or two gobblers and three to five hens at Goose Pond, but we have not located any turkey nests in our prairie restorations. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Biologists searching for duck nests were surprised to find many turkey nests in restored prairies on State Wildlife Areas and Waterfowl Production Areas in Columbia County.

Hopefully the hens will be successful this year and we can add wild turkeys to the list of confirmed nesting birds for Goose Pond Sanctuary and into the Breeding Bird Atlas project.  The first breeding bird atlas from 1995 to 2000 did not record wild turkeys in 10 northern counties (see map above) but in the first year of the Breeding Bird Atlas II project, turkeys have been found in all 72 counties!

Do not be surprised when visiting Goose Pond this spring and summer and seeing a wild turkey in grassland habitat.

By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary