Wild turkeys gobbling up eastern Kansas

There was a time not that long ago when the only time Kansans saw a turkey was when it was served on Thanksgiving.

Not anymore, especially in eastern Kansas.

Take a drive in the country, and you are likely to see a flock of turkeys gathered in a field hunting for insects or wasted grain.

“We certainly have quite a few turkeys. They are one of our better resources,” said Jim Pitman, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

In the 1950s the only places where turkeys could be found in Kansas were along the southern border where they had crossed over from Oklahoma, Pitman said.

“It’s my understanding that before we had regulated hunting seasons, they were just shot to extinction,” he said.

Kansas began bringing in turkeys from other states, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the turkey population showed a dramatic increase, Pitman said.

“It just takes a while to reach critical mass,” he said. “It finally gets to the point where there are enough birds out there. Then it (the population) just takes off.”

Wild turkeys are more prevalent in eastern Kansas because there is more timber, and turkeys roost in trees. Their populations, however, are still growing in central Kansas, Pitman said.

Several turkeys cruise through a soybean field Wednesday afternoon. The turkey population in Kansas, particularly in the eastern part of the state, has flourished since the 1990s.

One of the best places to see or hunt turkeys near Lawrence is on the designated hunting grounds around Clinton Lake. State turkey hunting licenses are needed.

“I think there is a really good population of them, from what I hear and see,” said Kipp Walters, a ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers. “We show people the areas where they can hunt. I think we have quite a few turkey hunters.”

There are two turkey-hunting seasons per year. In the spring, from April 1 to the end of May, an average of about 35,000 turkey males or “bearded” females are harvested. During the fall season from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, 7,000 to 9,000 turkeys of both sexes are taken on average, Pitman said.

Turkeys purchased from grocery stores for holiday feasts were raised in captivity. They are larger, usually around 30 pounds, while wild turkeys at their largest are about 25 pounds, Pitman said.

The taste of a wild turkey and a domesticated one, however, is similar, Pitman said. The only difference will be in the taste of the drumsticks.

“Wild turkeys spend a lot of time running from predators, and their thighs are pretty muscular and tough,” he said. “The domesticated turkeys lead a pretty cushy life.”

In addition to human hunters, wild turkeys, especially younger and smaller ones, are preyed upon by owls, hawks and coyotes, Pitman said.