Wild Turkeys and Creeks

By John Lewis | August 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2003

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 facing the major wildlife species in Missouri. The results of their study were published in 1937 in "A Survey of the Resident Game and Furbearers of Missouri." They reported that there were 3,584 turkeys in 45 counties, mainly in the southern part of the state.

Using Leopold's theory that Missouri's turkey range could support five turkeys per square mile, they calculated that there were at least 250,000 turkeys in the early 1800s. However, this figure was probably conservative. Bennitt and Nagel, like Leopold, apparently considered only the two-thirds of the state (50,000 square miles) originally in forests as turkey habitat. Had they used the entire state in their calculations, they might have estimated as many as 500,000 turkeys in the state, which is very close to the present estimates.

Wild turkey numbers reached their lowest point in 1952, when 2,379 birds were counted in a statewide survey. Beginning in 1954, the Missouri Department of Conservation initiated a wild turkey restoration program. Since then, Department employees and volunteers have released 2,611 native, wild-trapped turkeys in 142 areas in 91 counties.

Wild turkeys may have had a greater influence on the lives of the early settlers in Missouri than perhaps any other wildlife species. Turkeys were a source of food and income, and at Thanksgiving they were a symbol of the riches of a great new land. They even gave the holiday its nickname of "Turkey Day."

Wild turkeys affected the lives of settlers in other ways; in their music ("Turkey in the Straw"), their speech and geography. If you've ever traveled the back roads of this country, you've doubtless encountered names like, Gobbler's Knob, Turkey Creek, and Turkey Foot Mountain.

According to a 1997 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, there are 5,974 rivers and streams in Missouri. Creeks were not listed separately but were identified as streams. The survey listed 40 "Turkey Creeks" in the state, dispersed among 33 counties. Two Turkey Creeks were reported in seven of those counties.

Correspondence, notes, drafts and other materials relating to Missouri place names compiled by Robert L. Ramsay and his students are housed in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri Library in Columbia. They provide a brief description and possible origin of just about all of the place names in the state. The Ramsay files included information about 26 of the 40 Turkey Creeks listed by the survey.

A notation from the Ramsay files for Turkey Creek in Bollinger County read, ". . . a branch of Bear Creek in Wayne County, Turkey Creek is in the western part of Wayne Township and was named for the wild turkeys which old hunters found here."

Bollinger County had a Turkey Creek Post Office from 1915-22. The post office was there to serve a temporary sawmill camp located on Turkey Creek.

Another quote from the Ramsay files refers to Turkey Branch in Monroe County, ". . . a branch of Elk Fork-the wild turkeys which used to be abundant in this new county were especially numerous in this vicinity, also called Turkey Creek."

Two Turkey Creeks not listed by the U.S. Geological Survey were mentioned in the Ramsay files. One was in Marion County, and was described as a creek that flows into the Salt River in Ralls County, not far from Spaulding Springs. This creek has yet to be located. The second creek was actually called Turkey Branch, a small branch of Whip-poor-will Creek in Montgomery County. Another Turkey Creek was in Dade County, but was later renamed Maze Creek.

The most common name for a stream or creek in the state listed by the survey is Brush Creek. There are 53 Brush Creeks, followed by Turkey Creek with 40. Other creeks with notable numbers are Brushy (38), Indian (32), Bear (32), Goose (24), Spring (24), Coon (22), and Cedar (19). Eleven Deer Creeks were listed, along with six Elk Creeks and six Otter Creeks.

More than half of the Turkey Creeks in the state are located in what once was the transition zone between the deciduous forests of the east and the tallgrass prairies. This transition zone contained oak savannas and was the most productive wildlife habitat in the state. Crop fields and pastures have replaced the tallgrass prairies, and much of the timber along the streams has been removed. The creeks that were named by the early settlers because of the abundance of wildlife are still there, but the habitat has changed.

Turkey Creeks in Jasper, Stoddard and St. Francois counties are now in the city limits of Joplin, Puxico and Bonne Terre. Turkey Creek in Callaway County has a golf driving range on its banks, and the Turkey Creek in Atchison County is a drainage ditch. One of the two Turkey Creeks in Ozark County has been partially covered by Bull Shoals Lake, and part of one of the two Turkey Creeks in St. Clair County is under Truman Lake. No doubt some alterations in the habitat conditions surrounding the remainder of the Turkey Creeks in the state has occurred, though probably not to the same extent.

Fifty years ago, wild turkeys were in serious trouble, but thanks to an aggressive restoration program, the state's wild turkey population today may equal or even exceed that of 200 years ago. Our success in restoring wild turkeys in the last 50 years has been phenomenal and is just one of the many successful restoration programs carried out by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
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