My Ohio: Talking Turkey

Their numbers are increasing, and chances are you’ll encounter a wild gobbler sooner or later.

Research involving Ohio’s wild turkey population does not always go well. One amorous male fell in love with a female turkey decoy planted deep in the woods. The hen (a female turkey) and a hidden camera were set up by a government agency studying turkey mating habits.

“You can’t say which agency,” my source begged me, giggling so hard I could barely make out the words. “People will think we don’t take our jobs seriously.”

The male (called a tom or gobbler) thought the set-up was no laughing matter, however. The tom did everything possible to attract this feather-covered femme fatale. He strutted, he gobbled, he fluffed his feathers and fanned his tail. His wattle and the rest of his head turned from a normal red to bluish-white, which happens when turkeys get excited. (It’s like blushing in reverse.)

The turkey also recruited a few male cousins as back-up singers to help win his lady. He threw himself at the decoy and returned day after day trying to change the hen’s plastic personality. When Tom started furiously pecking the decoy one day, it was removed so he didn’t hurt himself. Researchers didn’t call the turkey “dumb,” just “misdirected.”

Wild turkeys had disappeared from Ohio by 1904 because of over-hunting and deforestation. The earliest efforts to re-establish Ohio’s largest upland game bird were unsuccessful. But a trap-and-release effort brought out-of-state turkeys into Ohio beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is now found in all 88 Ohio counties. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) estimates 180,000 turkeys currently live here.

Sometimes turkeys collide with civilization. The Terrorist Turkey became famous for ambushing hikers and chasing them in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park a few years ago. Other turkeys have been known to chase U.S. Postal Service trucks, roller bladers and bicyclists.

Several years ago, Ohio Magazine’s Executive Editor Vivian Pospisil had to stop her car several times to let a turkey cross a street in her suburban neighborhood. The intersection had become the bird’s hangout. A reporter from a local television channel at the scene asked several motorists what they had seen run across the road in front of their cars. One guessed a kangaroo.

Alas, one day the turkey was hit by a car. The local newspaper reported a resident saying he was not surprised because the turkey was “living a dangerous life.”

It can be treacherous for a turkey whose main goal is to avoid being shot or eaten. But if you would like to see a wild turkey somewhere other than on your dinner plate, ODNR wildlife biologist Mike Reynolds has a few suggestions. Turkeys don’t migrate, but gather into winter flocks. The ODNR suggests these viewing areas: Woodbury Wildlife Area, Coshocton County; Salt Fork Wildlife Area, Guernsey County; Grand River Wildlife Area, Trumbull County; Crown City Wildlife Area, Lawrence and Gallia Counties; and Lake La Su An Wildlife Area, Williams County. Also Malabar Farm State Park in Lucas, Tranquility Wildlife Area in Adams County and Blendon Woods in Columbus Metro Parks. 
One day I saw three males alongside the road when I was driving up a hill near my home. The turkeys were outraged that I slowed down to get a better look, and their beards (tufts of hair growing from their breasts) shook in indignation. Even though Reynolds says turkeys are closely related to dinosaurs and calls them “flying lizards,” I thought the birds looked regal. Like British barristers out for a morning stroll.

Turkeys show up in some rather unexpected places, too. One wild turkey roosted in a patio hammock. Another invaded the tent of two young brothers on a camping trip who now say they are more afraid of turkeys than any black bear in Ohio. A mother turkey walked her poults around a backyard in-ground swimming pool every morning until the pool was drained for the fall.

“As long as turkeys behave themselves, people don’t mind them ... ,” says Reynolds.

I don’t think the Terrorist Turkey got the message.

Ohio Magazine contributing editor Jill Sell is based in Sagamore Hills.