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A wary new visitor

Appearance of a wild turkey suggests deer feeding is having many consequences

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 5/2/19

The story behind an unusual visitor to our yard only confirms my suspicion that deer feeding is allowing more species—including some not well-adapted to the harsh conditions of a North Country …

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A wary new visitor

Appearance of a wild turkey suggests deer feeding is having many consequences

Posted

The story behind an unusual visitor to our yard only confirms my suspicion that deer feeding is allowing more species—including some not well-adapted to the harsh conditions of a North Country winter, to survive here.

Corn is a potent source of energy, and as we spread it across our landscape for the deer, other species are taking advantage. The female wild turkey that showed up in our yard in late April is almost certainly one such example.

When I first saw the bird on April 25, I saw it as a sign of the times, just one more example of the ways in which climate change was altering the ecosystem here at the southern edge of the boreal forest. That’s happening in many ways, but it’s not clear that the turkey strutting through the young spruce and balsam fir on the west side of our house, on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp, was the example I initially feared.

Keep in mind, historically, wild turkeys shouldn’t be living here in the North Country. They’re hardy birds to be sure and can clearly survive the temperatures we experience here. But they need food to generate the energy to keep them warm when the thermometer falls to 45-below.

In much of their traditional range, turkeys relied on natural, energy-rich sources of food, particularly in winter. Before blight nearly wiped out the American chestnut, that sizable nut comprised a significant part of a turkey’s diet. These days, they rely heavily on acorns, hickory nuts, beech nuts, butternuts, white ash seeds and, in the southwestern U.S., on the large seeds of the pinyon pine.

What you might note from that list of food sources, is that only acorns can be found in the North Country, and they are widely scattered at best. Black ash do produce seeds, but those crops tend to be so variable that turkeys couldn’t rely on them during lean years, which would make it difficult to sustain a population here.

That’s generally how things work in nature. Species can sustain themselves in a habitat only if they are sufficiently-adapted to the climatic conditions and if they have habitat in which they can find adequate food and shelter. Temperatures are only part of the picture. While snow tends to be intermittent in many parts of the U.S., making it easier for species to find nuts on the ground, deep and continuous snow cover typically lasts for several months here, and that limits a turkey’s ability to access what limited food might be available.

Corn, spread regularly by humans primarily for deer, has changed that dynamic here in the North Country.

It’s allowing species like turkeys and raccoons to move into the area and is pushing traditional residents, like moose, into the most remote parts of the Arrowhead, like the Superior National Forest interior, where few humans live. That’s because deer feeding has artificially sustained deer numbers in the region, which has negatively affected the region’s moose herd.

The hen turkey who came strutting into our yard last month almost certainly is the same one that has fed regularly at a residence located about a mile-and-a-half from our house, where the family feeds deer. It’s been coming, by itself, every winter for the past several years, but when the family stopped feeding their deer in mid-April, the turkey vanished. A few days later, a lone hen turkey suddenly showed up at our house, where it has been feeding on cracked corn I spread on the ground this time of year for the migrating sparrows, juncos, and newly-arrived redwings. If a deer finds the corn, I chase it away.

Given its history, it seems likely this bird could have escaped from a flock someone raised in the vicinity. It’s apparently managed to survive several winters, thanks to corn, but it’s unclear whether it’s ever found a mate. While residents in the area have reported seeing a single hen turkey on several occasions, no one has reported seeing it with another bird, or with young. That’s something I’ll be watching for over the next few weeks.

Regardless of the origins of this bird, it’s undeniable that a breeding population of wild turkeys has taken hold in many parts of our area, particularly in places with more agricultural activity. While climate change might be a factor in that, I suspect that it’s the spread of corn across the landscape that is the largest factor of all.

One thing is for sure. Wild turkeys are tough critters. The hen that has shown up in our backyard is a survivor and has probably managed to hang on by being incredibly wary. The slightest sound or motion from inside our house sends the bird scurrying into the brush.

Then again, if you had tasty drumsticks the size of this bird, you’d be wary, too.

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