Turkeys were once plentiful across our continent, and in Detroit. An island in the Detroit River known today as Fighting Island was first called “Turkey Island” because, well, that’s where the turkeys lived; Silas Farmer said there were turkeys in the city until at least 1850. But as cities grew, hunters hunted, and forests fell to make lumber and make way for homesteads, the turkey came to the brink of extinction. Turkeys disappeared from Massachusetts in about 1847. Gone from Wisconsin by the late 1880s. Michigan’s last recorded turkey for some 70 years was shot and killed by William B. Mershon of Saginaw in 1886.
But in many states they now terrorize, wild turkeys were reintroduced through the efforts of conservationists and game wardens.
“Why won’t Michigan try to bring back the wild turkey?” asked “Outdoor Affairs” columnist Jack van Coevering in the Detroit Free Press in 1939. The state had made a few failed tries, but other states had reintroduced turkeys successfully, including Pennsylvania and Virginia. “Why is it that the game division is so adamant against the wild turkey experiment? Why is it that the Lansing experts insist so strenuously that wild turkeys won’t succeed in Michigan?”
In 1954, a new turkey reintroduction program was proposed to the Michigan Conservation Commission, but most conservationists thought its chances of success were slim. Game commissioner Harry Ruhl told the Commission that the three-year, $15,000 program was “a marginal gamble at best.” The commission nonetheless approved the project. Fifty turkeys — 38 hens and 12 gobblers — were purchased from Pennsylvania and released in Allegan State Forest, at an “undisclosed location” to prevent poachers from finding them, in March 1954. (Pennsylvania stocked turkeys for other reintroduction efforts across the continent, including one in southern Ontario. Some states swapped fowl; Wisconsin traded some ruffed grouse to Missouri in exchange for their turkeys.)
On Nov. 6, 1965, a hunter named James Woodrow shot a seven-pound turkey hen — “the first wild turkey legally shot in Michigan in modern times,” crowed the Lansing State Journal. The turkey population had reached about 2700 and the 1954 reintroduction effort was deemed a success. In 2014, the Michigan DNR announced that wild turkeys were living in every county in the lower peninsula for the first time in history.