Much like students, 3-feet tall eastern gobblers peruse campus in flocks, searching for food and friendship at the University of Minnesota.
Many call Minnesota’s healthy, 70,000-strong population of Eastern Wild Turkeys a “conservation success story.” After being reintroduced to the state because of low populations decades ago, the birds made their way to the Cities — making a home in the metro, where they thrive in the city’s green spaces and near the University.
Most of the turkeys were reintroduced in rural areas across the state. But, following a “turkey highway,” or green spaces bordering rivers that converge in the metro, they made their way into the Cities with the help of the rivers’ tree cover and untouched natural spaces.
Turkeys have had a healthy population in the Metro for the last decade or so, said Scott Noland, an area wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“They kind of found an oasis for them to survive,” he said.
Green spaces in the city make an ideal home, providing amenities like an abundance of food, trees mingled with open spaces to forage and roost, and a lack of predators, said Sushma Reddy, a professor and researcher at the University studying the evolution of birds.
Here, they survive the winter as “opportunistic feeders” — prepared to consume foods from worms and insects to invertebrates and snakes. In the colder months, turkeys flock together in groups of about 15 birds, making it is easier to search out food and places to sleep.
Reddy says turkeys are one of many species that make wildlife in the city unique.
“It’s wonderful to be so close to the city and be able to see these scenes that are out of Bambi. … Being in Minnesota, everyone’s much more aware of their natural world,” said Reddy, who recently moved to the state.
Seeing a turkey on campus isn’t rare: it's actually very common, especially near the Mississippi, where open green spaces provide an ideal playground for the turkeys.
For preschoolers at the University's Shirley G. Moore Lab School, turkeys are part of the curriculum.
Lab School Director Sheila Williams Ridge, a specialist in nature education, often asks the children what they wonder about the turkeys.
They have a lot of questions.
“‘Do eagles eat turkeys?’ ‘Where do they sleep?’ ‘How come they haven’t been by our school in a long time?’ They try to investigate them as much as possible,” Williams Ridge said.
But for the preschoolers, remembering that the turkeys share a world with humans is just as important.
“We try to use [them] as a teaching tool,” Williams Ridge said. “As well as just acknowledging that we share the space, and that this is their home.”