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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Even Smart People Fall for Myths About Wild Turkeys

This guy I've long known has always looked smart and talked intelligently, and so I listened closely when he said I shouldn’t dismiss rumors that wild turkeys suppress southwestern Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse.


Minutes later, however, he still hadn’t explained how turkeys do it. He simply noted that turkeys have increased in number and range statewide since their reintroduction in 1976, while grouse in southern Wisconsin declined. Therefore, turkeys caused the plummet.


But what about the habitat changes? Haven’t woodlands in that region matured and poplar stands shrunk? Those changes favor turkeys, not grouse, right?


He assured me habitat wasn’t the whole story. His proof? He said male turkeys destroy not only the nests and eggs of hen turkeys, but also those of grouse and pheasants. “We aren’t seeing many pheasants anymore, either, so it makes sense,” he said.


Hmm. I hadn’t heard that about gobblers. Why would a gobbler trash a hen’s nest and destroy her eggs?


“Once a hen starts incubating her eggs, she quits breeding,” he said. “So, the gobbler trashes her nest and eggs, and she starts breeding again.”


Fascinating.


So, we’ve been blaming raccoons, possums, foxes, skunks and coyotes for destroying turkey, grouse and pheasant nests, when the real problem is sexually frustrated gobblers?


“I’m not saying that,” he replied. “It’s just another factor those biologists never mention.”


Ah, yes. Biologists are a troublesome lot. They like facts. Do you have any evidence, trail-cam photos, or scientific research verifying that gobblers destroy nests? I’m sure the biologists would look at it.


“Pfft! No! All my trailcams are watching deer trails and my waterholes.”


Fair enough. But just one thing: If gobblers are pillaging all those nests, why isn’t the turkey flock suffering like the grouse and pheasant populations?


Our discussion ended. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” he said.


I’ve long wondered why people have so many odd beliefs about wild turkeys. Myths about them are nearly as stubborn and pervasive as those about whitetails. Professor Mike Chamberlain at the University of Georgia addressed this topic recently in his popular weekly column “Turkey Tuesday” on Instagram.


Chamberlain noted, for example, that even John James Audubon – yes, that Audubon – used to believe gobblers are so logical, cunning and plotting that they trampled nests and eggs to force hens to resume mating.


Chamberlain, being a biologist, said the claim has no factual backing: “With tens of thousands of nests monitored through decades of research, not a single instance of toms destroying nests has ever been documented or observed,” Chamberlain wrote.


As turkey myths go, however, my favorite was the tale 20 years ago that the Department of Natural Resources was stocking rattlesnakes to reduce Wisconsin’s turkey population. Why? Maybe because the agency secretly believed turkeys were reducing grouse numbers. If you believe that, you must also believe turkeys sometimes drown during downpours by standing in a field with their mouths open to the clouds.


Yes, that’s a myth, too. But imagine that: A bird that’s dumb enough to drown itself could somehow figure out how to restoke hens’ sexual desires by destroying their nests.


As with some folklore, the rattlesnake/turkey myth probably sprouted from a smidgen of fact. On Sept. 1, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — not the DNR — released 15 captive-raised massasauga rattlesnakes at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in west-central Wisconsin.


Why? The eastern massasauga, or swamp rattlesnake, was a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Biologists from the F&WS, DNR and Milwaukee County Zoo believed human intervention was the only way to save this native species from extinction.


Therefore, the first step was determining whether these snakes could be helped through a “head-start” program, which meant raising them to a size that makes them less vulnerable to predators, such as — get this — wild turkeys! While massasaugas can grow to 2 or 3 feet at maturity in two to three years, they’re often killed long before by raccoons, hogs, skunks, foxes hawks or eagles. And yes, turkeys.


Before the 15 immature massasaugas were released, the researchers implanted each with radio-telemetry transmitters. The researchers then located them daily that year until they hibernated. Presumably, predators killed four of them before they entered hibernation. In spring 2000, only two of the massasaugas emerged, and one was killed that day by a predator.


One-for-11. Obviously, the experiment didn't go well. But true believers don’t let facts hamper theories. Can you imagine what they would have said had all 15 little snakes lived? Then again, how would a reptilian strike force of any size control a turkey population that was nearly doubling its size annually during the 1990s and early 2000s?


Had any of these conspiracy folks seen a turkey egg? No massasauga could swallow one. Besides, massasaugas prey primarily on mice, rats and ground squirrels. And science finds turkeys are more a threat to snakes than vice versa. Turkeys have never been documented as part of the rattlesnake’s diet, but researchers have documented wild turkeys eating young timber rattlesnakes.


Meanwhile, the massasauga remains endangered today in Wisconsin.


But why would the DNR have wanted to ax wild turkeys? Contrary to rumors, turkeys don’t cause crop depredation problems comparable to deer, raccoons or Canada geese.


And do the math: In fall 1999, while the feds were releasing 15 massasaugas, the DNR was releasing 55,479 turkey hunters who subsequently killed 10,825 turkeys of both sexes and all ages that autumn. And in fall 2000, the agency licensed 69,566 turkey hunters, and they shot 11,263 birds. Meanwhile hunters killed a combined 71,854 gobblers during the spring hunts those two years.


Consider, too, that Southern states have far more venomous snakes than Wisconsin, and yet they’ve had healthy wild turkey populations for centuries. Texas, for example, is crawling with huge rattlesnakes, whose length and girth make folks like me turn pale and run. If those big reptiles can’t control turkeys, how could our smattering of little massasaugas threaten them?


Those are the facts, folks, and you might even find them on Facebook.

Contrary to a long-running myth, gobblers don’t raid the nests of hen turkeys in spring to force them to resume breeding. — Patrick Durkin photo

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