Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Blame turkeys, but crop damage likely not theirs

Valmeyer, Ill. — Pity the poor turkey, again taking boatloads of  blame for curious crimes committed by other critters.

One recent morning, Jan Wiemers looked out her kitchen window and thought she’d nailed the criminal that had been eating her sweet corn and radishes.

“Four wild turkeys were walking on the edge of my garden, headed to the nearby hayfield,” Wiemers, of rural Monroe County, said. “I thought ‘so that’s what’s been eating my garden.’ But when I went to the garden, the only tracks I found in it were not turkey tracks. They were deer tracks.”
It’s a common mistake.

Even after being cleared by one scientist after another, wild turkeys in the state continue to take blame for dirty deeds done by deer.

The latest study, published last year in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management, agrees with what Illinois researchers have declared for years: claims that wild turkeys do great damage to agriculture crops are mostly exaggerated.

The review, “Real and Perceived Damage by Wild Turkeys: A Literature Review,” was conducted to determine real and perceived damage caused by wild turkeys in North America. The results show that although wild turkeys can cause damage to agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay – but that the majority of actual damage is usually minor or caused by other wildlife such as deer or raccoons. The authors also investigated the effects wild turkeys may have on other species of wildlife. While wild turkeys have been observed consuming unusual or uncommon food items including snakes, salamanders, lizards, bluegill, crayfish, and tadpoles, such events were rarely documented. Wild turkeys have also been implicated in the decline of bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasants, but the authors were unable to find any scientific evidence to substantiate these claims.

Debunking the turkey charges isn’t anything new. A recent study by researchers in Indiana exonerated turkeys on that charge, too.

Closer to home, a study by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale a decade ago looked at food habits of turkeys and wildlife damage to row crops to assess whether turkeys were causing damage to corn and soybeans in Illinois. The study was launched after DNR reported increasing numbers of complaints from landowners blaming turkeys for crop damage.

So faculty and students at SIUC’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab focused on a large chunk of private land located in Jackson County.

“Specifically, we quantified food habits of turkeys during spring, and summer crop damage attributable to turkeys,” noted the late Alan Woolf, who headed the Wildlife Lab and authored the study. “Our goal was to provide wildlife managers with information regarding how much turkeys actually damage crops in Illinois.”

According to the findings, “turkeys did not cause any definitive damage to row crops in Illinois. However, turkey use of waste grains, especially corn, as a food source in agricultural landscapes has been documented by several researchers.”

Hunters in the state were utilized for the SIUC study, as gizzards were collected from 118 hunter-harvested turkeys.

“Corn and soybeans were found in fewer than 30 percent of samples, but these crops were consumed as waste grain and no young plants were detected,” a report on the study indicated.

SIUC researchers also sampled newly planted corn and soybean fields for wildlife damage. More than 11,150 corn plants were inspected, with researchers finding that only 0.4 percent were damaged – only one damaged plant was attributable to avian sources.

Of 53,918 soybean plants sampled, 4.7 percent were damaged by wildlife, and none were attributable to turkeys. They sampled damage to 8,944 ears of corn and only 1.7 percent of ears were damaged, and none by turkeys.

Although it is on a smaller scale, turkey biologists point to the Wiemers garden case as a perfect example of turkeys taking the blame. Turkeys have long been fingered as suspects in crop damage cases because they often show up during daylight hours in corn and soybean fields where crop damage has occurred at night. The real culprits turn out to be deer and raccoons, whose nocturnal activity accounted for 95 percent of the damage in the fields studied. 

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