Try to picture yourself as an early settler to this province in, say, the 1700s. Now, think about what you might be preparing for dinner – squash, corn, berries and pretty much any wild critter that looks edible, right?
Well, back then, there was actually a favorite meal – a meal that we’re all familiar with. It was a bird that roamed North America in numbers as high as 10,000,000. Unfortunately, it was in such high demand that unregulated hunting and habitat loss pushed it to near extinction. The species was extirpated from the province of Ontario by 1909. No laws governed hunting of game in the late 1800s, and they were sought for food and commercial sale in large cities until only about 35,000 clung on to survive in what is now the eastern United States. If you hadn’t guessed, that bird is the wild turkey.
Turkeys were also a major food source for American natives, and many tribes used turkey feathers to make robes, blankets and fletching for hunting arrows. Native American hunters sometimes tipped their arrows with the sharp spurs of old gobblers, tools were carved out of turkey bones, and some aboriginals even learned to yelp through the small wing bones of turkeys to call other turkeys into bow range. Natives often fashioned their ceremonial headdresses out of turkey feathers. Some tribes revered beards, spurs and feathers as religious and spiritual symbols.
Today, thanks to the efforts of some key conservation groups, the eastern wild turkey has been restored as an important component of the biodiversity of southern Ontario, and, in 2007, the provincial population was estimated at over 70,000 birds and growing.
The idea of reintroducing wild turkeys to Ontario first surfaced in the early 1980s. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) supported the initiative and formed the Wild Turkey Reintroduction Steering Committee to oversee planning. The committee included representatives from the MNR, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH).
Over the course of about three years in the mid-80s, Ontario obtained 274 eastern wild turkeys from Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Vermont. The Wild Turkey Reintroduction Steering Committee existed until 1986, when they fulfilled their goals of re-establishing wild turkeys in the province.
The first legal hunt for wild turkeys in Ontario eventually took place in the spring of 1987. Since then, it was made law that all wild turkey hunters in Ontario must attend a one-day, wild turkey hunter education seminar and pass an exam before being certified to hunt.
So, now that we’re up to speed on the background of these awesome birds, let’s go hunting. Nothing beats heading out on a warm spring morning before dawn to sit on a dew covered field edge and wait for the gobble of a turkey off in the distance, knowing that as soon as he hits the ground, you’ll be calling him into range for a clean shot. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Well, take this into consideration – at last count, Ontario had about 35,000 hunters in the field looking for gobblers. Of those, only 9,800 birds were harvested, and, in all actuality, there is mere 22 percent success rate on average every season.
This is not some dumb bird that struts around the farmer’s field pecking the ground. Eastern turkeys live in diverse habitats like mixed oak-pine forests that are interspersed with fields, creeks and rivers. Since Easterns live mainly in woodlands, their home ranges are relatively small, with many flocks roaming a circumference of only a few thousand acres.
Eastern turkeys most often roost high in trees on points, flats or knolls just below ridge tops. In flatlands, these birds usually prefer to roost in straight hardwood trees that grow on small rises or hummocks. When cold weather comes in, they are known to take refuge in evergreen trees. It’s your job to lure them out. And, with a few tips from us, that will be a cinch.