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Let’s Talk Turkey: Once unknown in Muskoka, wild gobblers now seem to be everywhere

We’ve seen a lot of wild turkeys the last couple of years!” “Yeah, I almost hit some the other day driving down my road!” “Where are they all coming from?”

The subject of wild turkeys has popped up in conversations throughout Muskoka in the past few years. Flocks of meleagris gallopavo silvestris seem to be everywhere in the region.

While a few fingers were pointing to the re-introduction of wild turkeys in Ontario – and believing this region was part of that (it wasn’t) – the facts point to other factors.

These include a natural growth of the population and subsequent migration for the better part of three decades, as well as seeing milder winters.

It’s been 28 years since eastern wild turkeys were re-introduced to Ontario. Once native to the province, they were hunted to the point of extirpation (local extinction) in the 19th century. Nearly a century later, they were brought back.

“Ontario’s eastern wild turkey restoration program was initiated in 1984,” explains Anita Tamrazi from the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry. “The ministry never released wild turkeys in Muskoka. The birds found in Muskoka dispersed there from established populations further south.”

The program to reintroduce turkeys into this province’s wild was a joint effort by the provincial ministry, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, with a helping hand from the National Wild Turkey Federation in the United States.

From release points in eastern Ontario, the birds gradually spread out across the province.

The program has been a wild success. Many organizations estimate the species to now number more than 100,00 in Ontario. However, the birds are difficult to track, and an exact number isn’t available.

When turkeys move into a new area, it can feel as though their population is exploding: one year you don’t see them, then they seem to be everywhere.

“Now that wild turkey populations have been established throughout much of their current breeding range in Ontario for some time, the growth of the population and range expansion has slowed considerably,” says Tamrazi.

Going forward, she says, their numbers will rise and fall, the same as many other native species. “Populations in most areas are fluctuating naturally, which can mean numbers can vary considerably depending largely on whether it is a good or poor year for nesting and producing poults (young turkeys).”

Much like any wild animal, wild turkeys will be drawn to food sources. Since Muskoka features many areas of habitat that aren’t particularly suitable for these feathered flocks (unlike humans, they’re not drawn to the waterfront or rocky outcrops), it leads them to seek sustenance and nest near the edge of towns and along woodland fringes, spots where we’re very likely to see them.

“The birds may be found in closer association with the edge of suburbia where they have ready access to food, can find a mix of habitats at the forest edge, and avoid predators,” says Tamrazi.

Turkeys will eat almost anything, but it’s well documented that their preferred diet includes acorns, beech nuts, hickory nuts, fruit, insects, worms, snails, and the occasional amphibian.

Native and well adapted to deciduous forests, and an essential part of the wildlife community, the eastern wild turkey is an important prey species for predators like coyote, red fox, and bobcat.

Wild turkey populations are generally expected to remain relatively stable across the province, with natural fluctuations dependent largely on spring weather and its influence on nesting success.

Areas like Muskoka could see some further increases in turkey populations with mild winters, however one or more severe winters – really cold with deep snow – could cause significant declines as they are prone to winter mortality under those conditions.

So as long as the winters continue on their milder trend, it’s a good idea to get used to the gobbles and stay alert when on the roads.

ARTICLE BY CHRIS OCCHIUZZI

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