Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic. Data credit: Ontario range based on Wild Turkey Breeding Range in Ontario map, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 2012. Quebec range information is approximate.
In Ontario these days, the vibrant red wattle and coal-black plumage of the male eastern wild turkey is a sight to behold.
But it hasn’t always been. Abundant in the region before the start of the 20th century, wild turkeys vanished from the province by 1909. Government of Ontario reports cited unregulated hunting and the clearing of forests for agriculture as causes of the species’ extirpation.
The loss of habitat was particularly challenging, as wild turkeys thrive in areas that are part deciduous forest and part grassland. When forests were cut down, much of the birds’ habitat was lost, including brood cover — a major breeding requirement. That’s the wooded area providing both overhead protection and easy ground movement for young turkeys, or poults. Brood cover is also dense with insects, poults’ main food source.
In 1984, the provincial government and organizations including the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters began releasing wild turkeys from Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee back into Ontario. The turkeys were quick to adapt to their new environment, and over three years a total of 4,400 — some stock from the United States and some hatched in Canada — were redistributed at 275 sites across the province.
Today an estimated 100,000 eastern wild turkeys live in Ontario, with 13,000 concentrated in the Ottawa area alone. The population made such a comeback, in fact, that a spring hunting season was introduced by 1987, followed by a fall season in 2008.