Kathy Brandt was walking her dog in mid-September when she saw a wild turkey and four young running on the Millennium Trail near her Round Lake area home. In mid-July, Luke Buckardt saw a female and several young wild turkeys 200 yards from the main entrance to Chain O’ Lakes State Park near Antioch. “I was very surprised. I got really excited,” said Buckardt, a restoration ecologist for Lake Forest Open Lands Association. “Being able to see a brood of turkeys is quite a treat.”
Those sightings are confirmations that after an absence of at least eight decades, the wild turkey is again successfully breeding in Lake County. In fact, its numbers have grown enough to have a wild turkey hunting season in fall at Chain O’ Lakes, with three bagged last year, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Neighboring McHenry County has even more wild turkeys — and hunting is allowed in that county in both spring and fall. In the spring of 2014, more than 13,000 wild turkeys were bagged statewide, according to IDNR.
When early settlers came to Illinois, wild turkeys were plentiful, with reports of flocks of several hundred.
Habitat loss and overhunting led to their near extinction in the state, according to IDNR. Wild turkeys live in mature forests scattered with edges and fields, and they can be seen feeding on corn in agricultural fields. They also eat acorns and other wild nuts.
An introduction program began in 1959 when seven turkeys from Mississippi were released into southern Illinois. For the next 40 years, wild turkeys have been captured and released throughout the state, and in 1970, Illinois held its first wild hunting season in 67 years in southern Illinois, according to IDNR. Reintroductions occurred at Chain O’ Lakes State Park and Redwing Slough in Antioch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to a Tribune report.
Today, more than 150,000 wild turkeys live in Illinois and in every county, according to the University of Illinois Extension, with most of these nonmigratory birds found in southern, western and northwestern parts of the state.
Hunters, nature lovers and bird watchers, including Richard Bisbee of Round Lake, said they are happy to see the turkeys back. Bisbee saw his first turkeys in Lake County on April 25 this year at Chain O’ Lakes State Park. “They were in a small field right along a tree line and they went into the trees as I watched,” Bisbee said. “I think it was one male and four females. There was a tom for sure though. He puffed up and spread his tail feathers a couple times. Those were the first and only turkeys I’ve seen in Lake County.” Buckardt, who’s seen wild turkeys on and off in the county for the past seven or eight years, said he’s only seen chicks once, and that was this year.
“This is a very good indicator that we have done a good job monitoring and increasing open space particularly in the northern section of Lake County,” he said. “It’s very exciting we have created an environment for them to survive so close to Chicago. They have quite a long history in the United States and it’s fun to have them around.” IDNR ranger Ronnie Lawyer said he’s happy to have the turkeys back as well. He hunts in neighboring McHenry County, where turkeys can be harvested in spring, and works at Chain O’Lakes State Park where turkey hunting season is underway. A state license, a habitat stamp and archery tags are required to hunt wild turkeys at the park. “We allow 35 turkey hunters Monday and Tuesday,” he said of the season that runs through the end of December. “They’ve shot three turkeys so far this year,” Lawyer said. “The majority of archery hunters are hunting deer.”
Lawyer said wild turkeys are “very smart” and “can see color very well.” It takes patience and stealth to bag a wild turkey, he said. Wild turkeys are nothing like their cousins that will appear on countless dinner tables this Thanksgiving. Wild turkeys can fly up to 55 mph for short durations, according to the National Wildlife Federation. They also fly up to trees to roost at night. Lawyer said he often hears male wild turkeys gobbling and sees them strutting and fanning their tails to attract females in spring in Lake and surrounding counties. “You’re seeing something that’s gone on for thousands of years,” he said. “To be there and experience it is neat.”
Wild turkey numbers fluctuate, which is why bag limits are established each year, he said. Similar stories about wild turkeys’ fall and rise in population have been occurring throughout North America, but recently, in some states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, numbers of wild turkeys are declining for reasons biologist are working to pinpoint.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, reintroduction programs helped the population of wild turkeys in North America reach about 6.7 million in 2013. Last year, turkey numbers were down by about 15 percent, according to the federation.
Some Lake County residents became so enamored with a lone wild turkey that hung around Sand Lake Road and Route 45 in Lindenhurst for several months that they dedicated a Facebook page to the bird they called Lindy. When it was hit by a car in February residents placed a memorial at the intersection where the turkey died. The memorial is gone from the intersection, but the RIP Lindenhurst Turkey Facebook remains up with more than 1,000 likes and pictures of wild turkey cookies and recent reports of sightings.
Jennifer Hoffman posted Nov. 8: “We saw a gaggle of turkeys this past week, early morning, near Millburn Elementary School. We counted seven, but there might have been more since they were crossing the road into the woods.” “I was giddy with excitement,” she added.
Those who want a glimpse of a wild turkey will have the most luck at Chain O’ Lakes State Park, said Brad Semel, natural heritage biologist for IDNR. “Multiple broods are seen in summer and early fall by the office,” Semel said. “Gobblers (males) with their harems (females) can predictably be observed each morning on the hillside just past the horse stable during spring.” Sheryl DeVore is a News-Sun freelancer.