Last winter, residents of north suburban Winthrop Harbor joined online to follow the exploits of seven wild turkeys dubbed The Magnificent Seven. The birds strutted through neighborhood yards and roosted in nearby oak trees. Locals shared pictures on Facebook and marveled at the birds’ beauty.
This year, if the birds return, officials plan a “turkey tracker” on the village website, to let people know where to spot the animals.
Turkeys have been seen all around the Chicago area, watchers say, including at McCormick Place and in Beverly on the South Side, Evanston, South Holland, Bull Valley and along the Fox River.
The bird’s comeback is a conservation success story. Wild turkeys once were plentiful in Illinois, but by the early 1900s were hunted to oblivion. State and private conservation groups reintroduced them in the midcentury, and they’ve grown to stable numbers, with an estimated 5 million nationwide, despite recent declines.
This Thanksgiving, while many Americans will eat the fattened, white, flightless domesticated turkey, its brown-feathered wild cousin will be roaming outside, gobbling and fanning its tail to show off.
Turkeys occupy a fairly unique niche in the bird world. They are among the largest birds in North America, with males growing up to 4 feet long, and unlike migratory birds, they stick it out here through the winter.
They can fly in short bursts up to 50 mph and can run at nearly 20 mph. They feed on oak, hickory and other nuts, farm field grains, plants and insects.
Adult males are called gobblers or toms, females are called hens, and chicks are known as poults. A group of turkeys can be called a crop, posse or a flock. The birds typically have black and bronze feathers with flecks of white, a blue head, with red caps and wattles on their throats.
Turkeys don’t just gobble, according to birdwatchingdaily.com — they make all kinds of sounds, including cackling when they fly, clucks and purrs. The National Wild Turkey Federation has an annual convention to save the animals and maintain them for hunting.
There is a fall archery hunting season for turkeys in all 102 counties in Illinois. Every year, hunters harvest about 700 of them, mostly in rural areas — though state reports show somebody got one in Cook County last season.
Founding father Benjamin Franklin didn’t call for the turkey to be the national emblem, but he did extol the virtues of turkeys as “more respectable” than eagles, a “true original native of America,” and a “bird of courage.”
There are six subspecies of turkeys, with those in Illinois typically being eastern turkeys.
Turkeys have been spotted at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, where they like woodland clearings, said Nina Baki, public engagement and programs manager for the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
The nature center also has a captive turkey that was imprinted on humans. But they remain rare to see in the wild, she said, in part because they tend to shy away from people.
In Bull Valley in McHenry County, where turkeys are often seen, Bull Valley Police Chief Tracy Dickens said they’re not so shy.
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“They kind of rule the road out here,” he said. “I’ve learned to yield to them. My air horn just upsets them, and they give me a look like, ‘We’re not moving.’ Most people understand they’re going to move at their own pace.”
In Beverly, Amy Kaskie named her gift store Turkey after a flurry of sightings of a bird named Lucky in the neighborhood several years back. She said the word turkey connotes abundance and community.
“This turkey keeps showing up when things are getting wild in our lives,” she said. “It’s a fun, lighthearted thing. It’s the spirit of the turkey, and it’s good for everyone.”
Not everyone loves wild turkeys. In Toms River, New Jersey, television news reports claimed that “gangs” of the birds were “terrorizing” residents by blocking their way or pecking on roofs and at cars.
Still, turkeys remain rare enough that bird-watchers get excited when they see them, said Judy Pollock, president of the Chicago Audubon Society.
“They’re surprisingly good flyers for such a big, heavy bird,” she said. “It’s always a surprise when they show up, so we’re happy to see them.”