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Wild Turkeys Defy Winter in Wisconsin's Northwoods

Hunters too easily overlook the endless hazards that deer, turkeys and other wildlife must survive year-round if they’re to greet us when we tote a bow, rifle, traps or shotgun into their domain.


Perhaps no Wisconsin critter faces bigger challenges than wild turkeys in the forests north of U.S. Highway 8. Then again, maybe I’m mistaken. I’ve driven the Conley Road in central Ashland County fairly often the past 20 years, and I’m no longer surprised when turkeys cross that road, especially east of the Bad River bridge.


But whitetails? Spotting a deer anywhere along that road shocks me when visiting Tom Heberlein’s shack. The forests sprawling east, west, north and south of his 40 acres are too mature to sustain many deer. As I routinely tell Heberlein, “The deer habitat around your shack is so poor that even wolves don’t hunt there.”


Therefore, I thought it normal on Christmas Day when my wife and I spotted a turkey flock crossing the Conley Road, but no deer. I sped up, hoping to get a photo, but the last gobbler in line disappeared into firs, spruce and snow before we drew near.


I’ve also seen turkeys just outside Ashland, and just south of Brule and Cornucopia. Even so, every time I spot wild turkeys in or near the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest I wonder how they survive the North’s winters. I assume their world shrinks considerably when 3-foot snows cover forest openings and smother fields. Humans need snowshoes to move around up there in winter, but turkeys lack the luxury of webbed toes.


And yet there they are each spring and fall in the Department of Natural Resources’ annual harvest reports. In fact, turkey-hunting success rates hover consistently at 18% each year in northwestern and northeastern Wisconsin, matching the statewide average.


Wisconsin’s Zone 6, which includes Heberlein’s shack, posted 18% success rates four straight springs from 2016 through 2019. Zone 6 covers all of Sawyer, Douglas and Bayfield counties, and is bordered on the east by Highway 13 and the south by Highway 8.


Granted, Zone 6 hunters typically shoot 10 times fewer birds each spring than hunters in our turkey-rich zones farther south — 1, 2 and 3 — but they all average about 18% for success. But get this: Zone 6’s success rates during autumn hunts in 2018 (6.9%) and 2019 (6.8%) led the state.


That’s even more impressive when recalling that no one, until recently, thought wild turkeys could survive anywhere near Lake Superior. A.W. Schorger, a famous University of Wisconsin naturalist and author of “The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication,” described the bird’s natural territory this way:


“The upper limit of its range may be defined by a line running southwest from Green Bay through Green Lake and Sauk counties, thence due west along the Minnesota/Iowa boundary.”


When the DNR began trucking in wild turkeys from Missouri in 1976 and releasing them across their presumed native range, biologists never expected them to thrive outside southwestern Wisconsin. I recall driving to northern Waushara County in 1986 to report on a major release, and dutifully reporting that the hills north of Poy Sippi were likely Wisconsin’s last frontier for turkeys.


Those conservative expectations still make sense, however. Just think what turkeys face each winter. Not every flock lives near active dairies where farmers dump manure daily for the turkeys’ “hot lunch” program. But no one really knows winter’s full menu for forest-dwelling turkeys. They obviously eat combinations of acorns, woodland mosses, evergreen ferns, tree buds, seeds from backyard feeders, and dead insect, invertebrates, or plant matter scavenged from seeps and south-facing slopes. And even though turkeys seldom scratch deep into snow, they feed behind deer and scratch thoroughly wherever deer paw away snow.


Still. Talk about a hard way to go. Yes, they can often reach higher than normal when standing atop crusted snow. But they just as often get confined to trees when deep, powdery snow covers the land like floodwaters, making ground-foraging impossible.


Don’t underestimate such hardships. Research shows that turkeys can’t live and forage for weeks in treetops. In a 2011 study during a month-plus flood in Louisiana, Michael Chamberlain documented only one in five GPS-collared turkeys survived.


Chamberlain noted that turkeys move to higher ground if they know it exists. But if that ground isn’t above the floodwaters, turkeys just keep searching familiar turf until starving to death. Here’s how those birds died: A bobcat killed one hen the day the flood began. Another hen died after 21 days, and a third simply disappeared. Chamberlain didn’t know if the missing hen’s collar malfunctioned or if the flood destroyed it. The lone surviving hen found dry ground 29 days into the flood as waters receded. The lone tom died in a water-inundated area 31 days into the flood.


No similar study has followed Northwoods turkeys in winter to see how they survive. You would assume, however, that they’d require more food, given winter’s severe cold, and struggle to survive a month if stranded by deep powder.


Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of hunters chasing the North’s turkeys. The DNR typically sells all of its forest tags during the annual December draw. Among those hunting forest turkeys is John Maier, who owns a cabin west of Clam Lake.


“The absolute best thing about turkey hunting up there is that you can go after turkeys pretty much anywhere you see them,” Maier said. “It’s all public land, and it’s a blast. I see birds everywhere in Door County, but they’re all on farms where they’re already being hunted.”


An added bonus, of course, is that those 82% of hunters who don’t kill a Northwoods turkey seldom blame it on wolves.


Or maybe I just don’t get around enough up there.

John Maier of Door County shot this gobbler in May 2020 after his wife, Brenda, called it in while they hunted the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest east of Hayward.

— Brenda Maier photos


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