Be careful where you answer the call of nature. Nature might call back — with a vengeance.
Not long ago, I was biking the winding stretch of the Lansing River Trail that links the Potter Park Zoo with Kalamazoo Street and MSU to the east. There aren’t many amenities in this wooded stretch, but it wasn’t hard to find a secluded clearing, well off the path, lean my bike on a tree and take an urgently needed rest stop.
What I didn’t know is that this part of the River Trail, adjoining 200-acre Crego Park, is part of an informal chain of wild and semi-wild spaces on the eastern edge of Lansing that make a perfect habitat for one of North America’s most beautiful and biggest game birds, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).
Suddenly, an enormous, angry, boulder-sized mass launched itself off the ground, barely two feet in front of me. The blurry blob gave a harsh squawk of alarm and jetted into the high branches of a nearby tree, where it settled down almost immediately and made itself comfortable.
Turkeys nest on the ground, but they often roost in trees, especially at night.
“They make a lot of noise,” state Department of Natural Resources upland game specialist Adam Bump said. “There’s a lot of crashing and banging, a lot of arguments up there, who’s going to get the best spot to roost. It’s pretty fun to watch them fly up and down.”
It’s fun if you know what to expect, but a sudden turkey encounter can send your heart jumping out of your chest.
When they’re pissed off — or, in this case, pissed on — they’re very fast flyers. Their top speed has been clocked at 55 miles per hour.
Encounters with wild turkeys have grown more and more frequent in recent years, according to Lansing parks director Brett Kaschinske.
“We have not done a study, but I can say we have a large number of turkeys in our parks,” Kaschinske declared.
A combination of open, grassy areas and wooded cover make a huge swath of eastern Lansing turkey-friendly. An extensive archipelago of habitat stretches northward from 100-acre Hawk Island Park through 87-acre Scott Woods, 134-acre Fenner Nature Center, 200-acre Crego Park, 98-acre Potter Park and several more nice strutting stretches, including Mt. Hope and Evergreen cemeteries and Groesbeck Golf Course.
“This area provides a lot of cover and roosting places,” Kaschinske said. “There is a very healthy population of wild turkeys.”
At the Fenner Nature Center, program manager Sam Ansaldi frequently sees them make their rounds through the forest and browse the open areas for tasty bugs.
“You see the chicks come out in spring, and you see quite a bit of them in breeding season,” Ansaldi said.
“They can really haul. When they fly into a tree to roost, there’s a lot of power there.”
Tell me about it.
The robust Lansing contingent of turkeys is part of a dramatic 20th century conservation success story.
Wild turkeys were abundant in Michigan in colonial times, with a population estimated at close to 100,000, but they all but disappeared from the state by the early 1900s, due to overhunting and habitat loss from indiscriminate logging, according to a 2019 report by Bindu Bhakta of MSU Extension in Oakland County. Between 1919 and 1983, a growing alliance of conservation groups working to expand turkey habitat in the state brought in turkeys from Pennsylvania, Iowa and Missouri. They started with only 50 imported turkeys, but now it’s estimated that more than 200,000 wild turkeys live in Michigan. (Just don’t call them “Michiganders.”) The DNR estimates that about 6 million wild turkeys live in the United States.
There are interesting consequences to the increase in turkey numbers, as some Lansing residents are discovering when they suddenly see birds the size of velociraptors raiding their feeders.
“You see them become more adaptable, more comfortable in suburban and urban settings,” Bump said. “You get those nice, tree-lined lots, good habitats with bird feeders and that kind of thing, and you get turkeys all the time. It’s a cool thing for people to see, but they can also start causing some trouble, which makes them less welcome in some circumstances.”
When Bump was a DNR field officer in the Midland area several years ago, he was called upon to handle some bad turkey behavior.
“It starts out great, because people want to see turkeys, especially in the spring, when they’re doing their breeding displays,” Bump said. “They’re pretty amazing to watch, as long as they stay in their place.”
But every spring, males compete with other males for territory and get “riled up,” Bump said.
“The hormones are kicking in, and they become aggressive sometimes, especially in the spring, and lose their fear of people,” Bump explained.
Turkeys haven’t been known to cause significant damage or injury, but they can be intimidating.
“You just feel uncomfortable,” Bump said.
He’s dealt with cases of turkeys chasing kids at bus stops and worse.
“There were turkeys that would act aggressive and block access to a convenience store,” Bump said. “People were walking up, and they were acting like they might peck them. There were turkeys that would block access to drive-through banks and jump on cars.”
The fighting spirit that moves a turkey to guard a bank ATM from a vehicle the size of a rhinoceros is the same virtue Benjamin Franklin invoked in a famous letter to his daughter. Contrary to popular myth, Franklin didn’t suggest the turkey be made the national bird, but he did lament that the bald eagle, which he considered to be a scrounger and a coward, was on the crest of the Society of the Cincinnati. Franklin’s favorite bird had mettle as well as wattle.
“The Truth is, the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America,” Franklin wrote. “He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Bump said his office is getting an increasing number of inquiries in recent years about turkeys in backyards. In most cases, he tells people to admire them from a respectable distance, especially in spring, and get rid of possible food sources such as bird feeders. And take it from someone with heart-stopping experience: be careful where you take your al fresco rest stops.
The other way to experience the state’s abundant turkey population is to get into the forest with a shotgun, a bow and arrow or a crossbow. Michigan has spring and fall hunting seasons for wild turkeys. The fall season ended Nov. 14.
Turkey hunting has become a popular pastime since it was reinstated in 1965. According to the DNR’s most recent hunting survey, from 2021, about 82,384 hunters in Michigan harvested about 34,426 turkeys in the spring, and about 13,000 hunters harvested 3,400 turkeys in the fall.
While some hunters set out in early November to bag a Thanksgiving dinner, nature isn’t a grocery store. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a turkey at all, let alone a bird the size your family dinner requires. Statewide, 42 percent of hunters harvested a turkey in 2021.
The spring hunt is far more popular. In spring, it’s easier to tell males from females and get them to respond to calls. That’s also the festive time of year when the fleshy, rubbery necks of males (called snoods) turn all-American red, white and blue. Spring hunting in Michigan is restricted to “bearded turkeys,” or turkeys that have a horsetail-like plume of dark feathers dangling from their chests, 98 percent of which are male. Bump explained that because one male can mate with multiple females, harvesting males doesn’t have an adverse impact on the population. Both male and female turkeys can be hunted in the fall.
Only don’t try it in Lansing. A city ordinance prohibits “discharge of guns or bow and arrow” in the city, according to Kaschinske.
Across the state, volunteers have worked for decades to make hundreds of tracts of land turkey-friendly, carefully husbanding tracts with a combination of open grasslands and woodlands stocked with oak and other nut-bearing trees.
“They’re fairly big birds, so they need decent sized trees to roost in at night,” Bump said.
Oak trees and other nut-bearing species also help feed the birds over the winter.
Turkeys use open areas for courtship display and for brood rearing. Open grasslands have the highest density of insects.
“They’re fixated on insects,” Bump said. “They’re spending most of their life finding as much bugs as they can because they need the protein to feed their young.”
When turkeys get older, they move into brushy cover where they can take cover from predators and find summer sources of food such as blackberries.
The DNR has helped create four clusters of “turkey tracts” in western Michigan, in Allegan, Barry, Flat River and Holly.
Bump said turkey tracts are meant to “highlight work our biologists were already doing, and making an easily accessible, easy to understand place to go turkey hunting, especially for first time turkey hunters, or people looking for a new area.”
Each turkey tract has a designated parking area and a kiosk with maps that help hunters find the best hunting spots.
Among the conservation groups working with the DNR to maintain, protect and enlarge turkey habitat are the state chapters of the National Wildlife Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society and Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Bump said turkeys are now seen in every county in Michigan, even in the Upper Peninsula, where deep snow makes foraging challenging for ground birds.
“We have them farther north than before, probably because some human food sources make it easier for them to make it through the winter,” he said. “Wild turkeys are a great example of the kind of success we can have when we get a lot of partners and do a lot of good work for wildlife.”
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