Ask a naturalist — Why didn’t the turkey cross the road?


In general, visitors to North Mississippi Regional Park are able to see a wider variety of wildlife in the park than in their own backyards. However, one animal seems to be missing and people often ask about it. This month we are answering the common question: Why aren’t there any wild turkeys in the park, but they are everywhere in the surrounding neighborhoods?

Today it’s hard to believe, but 50 years ago, Minnesotans did not encounter wild turkeys. Across the U.S. wild turkeys were rare. In fact, the restoration of wild turkeys in America is often considered the greatest wildlife conservation success story ever, given they were once on the brink of extinction. Prior to European settlement, there were more than 10 million wild turkeys in the U.S., but by the late 1800s intense hunting and habitat loss, due to clearing forests for logging and farmland, had reduced their population to around 30,000 birds.

Efforts to reestablish turkeys in southern Minnesota (their natural historic range) were made throughout the first half of the 20th Century. However, domestic farm-raised turkeys were used and these birds were unable to adapt and survive. In the 1970s, adult wild turkeys trapped in other states were successfully transplanted to Minnesota. Wildlife managers from six states traded their wild caught turkeys for other species such as ruffed grouse, black bears and Canada geese. Soon, flourishing southern Minnesota populations were used to start populations farther north. Over the next 40 years, state wildlife officials released more than 5,000 wild turkeys at 280 sites throughout Minnesota. Now wild turkeys are found in three-quarters of Minnesota and total more than 70,000 individuals.

Turkeys found their way into the metro by the late 1990s, with the easy food source of human hand-outs. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, turkeys were never intended for urban and suburban settings, but found their way by following natural waterways. Turkeys prefer to find a good area to call home, then stay put. They are not going to move far if there’s food, water, roosting areas and open space for mating and nesting. North Mississippi Regional Park provides all of these things, so the park sounds like a great place for wild turkeys.

So, why haven’t wild turkeys found their way from Northside neighborhoods to such a seemingly spectacular habitat at the park? The answer is there are physical barriers, which have prevented turkeys from finding the park. West of the park lies Interstate 94; this section of which was completed in 1982, nearly two decades before wild turkeys were in the city. This major roadway through North Minneapolis cuts the park off from the rest of the community, making it challenging for animals and plants to move easily between the two. Turkeys can fly distances of up to a quarter mile, technically giving them the capability to fly here. However, both the freeway and the Mississippi River are such large-scale barriers that the park’s rewarding habitat is not distinguishable on the other side and so there is no motivation to make the flight. Additionally, while turkeys are relatively good swimmers, they wouldn’t be able to fight against the strong river current to swim to the park.

Luckily, people are easily able to cross over the freeway into the park on 49th and 53rd Avenues as well as under I-94 on trails at 45th Avenue and along Shingle Creek in order to make a connection to nature. Visit the Nature Center at North Mississippi for free programs each weekend, check out binoculars, nature guides and activity backpacks, and go snowshoeing each Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. We may not have wild turkeys, but on the first Saturday each month look for other birds in the park at our free Early Birding program. If you have young children, join the fun with our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.

February Public Programs

Feb. 3 – Early Birding: search for birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m.

Feb. 10 – Nature Art Colors and Ice: make colorfully cold creations, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

Feb 10 – Challenge-tine’s Day: outdoor obstacle challenges and bonfire with treats, 18+, 1-3 p.m.

Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Stargazer Snowshoeing: hike the park and look at the stars, 18+, 7-8:30 p.m., $5.

Feb. 18 – Family Funday Under the Snow: discover what animals are doing below the snow, 1:30-3 p.m.

Feb. 24 – Outdoors Birds of Prey (owls): find out how to look for owls in the neighborhood, 2-3 p.m.

Kids School Release Day (ages 6-12): Feb. 16, Outdoor Engineering: develop your skills as we build with outdoor materials! 8 a.m.-4 p.m., $30.

This month look for signs that animals are eating, such as chew marks or empty seed shells. Create a drawing or take a picture of what you find. Then come show a naturalist at the front desk to receive a North Mississippi Junior Naturalist button! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of February.

Find registration for these programs and more at or call 612-370-4844 for details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!


This article was written by Kelley Ekstrom, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist, North Mississippi Regional Park