Wild Turkeys and Creeks

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

When settlers began moving into the Missouri Territory following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, they found a land teeming with wildlife, especially wild turkeys.

Of course, it's impossible to know how many turkeys there were in Missouri, but county histories may offer some clues. Accounts such as "... too many turkeys to think about raising tame turkeys" (Morgan, Co. about 1840); "... so numerous and so easily obtained too scarcely to be worthy of consideration" (Montgomery, Co. circa 1830); and "... too abundant to be worthy of mention" (Shelby, Co. circa 1840) are just a few.

In 1806, Zebulon Pike reportedly saw so many turkeys with red heads at the mouth of a small stream flowing into the Osage River just east of the present location of Warsaw that he called it "Cardinal River." Early settlers later renamed it Big Turkey Creek to distinguish it from Little Turkey Creek. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft mentioned observing innumerable flocks of wild turkeys in his journal covering his trip through the interior of Missouri and Arkansas in the winter of 1818-19. These are just a few of the observations that appear in the early literature regarding the abundance of wild turkeys. Although these early reports suggest there were lots of wild turkeys, none provide any real basis for estimating populations.

Aldo Leopold, in "Game Survey of the North-Central-States (1931)," first evaluated wild turkey numbers in Missouri. He estimated that Missouri's wild turkey range at that time was capable of supporting five turkeys per square mile, but actual numbers were much lower. It isn't clear how much of the state Leopold considered turkey range in 1931, but he probably included just the two-thirds of the state that were originally forested, even though wild turkeys historically were found throughout the state. At the time of his survey, most of the tallgrass prairie had been converted to crop fields and no longer supported turkeys.

Leopold's estimate of five turkeys per square mile in the forested portions of the state is almost identical with current population densities for the same areas. Wild turkey numbers today outside the more heavily forested regions are three to four times higher than they were estimated to be at the time of settlement, but the prevalence of turkey place names in these regions suggests that those estimates were likely too low.In 1934-35, Dr. Rudolf Bennitt and Werner Nagel made the first attempt to provide population estimates and problems

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