FOREST GLEN — When longtime birder Bob Dolgan went to visit the LaBagh Woods to bird watch for the first time over the weekend, he did not expect to catch a rare sighting of a wild turkey.
But nestled in the cottonwood trees, he saw a small wild turkey sitting on a large branch. It only stayed for a few moments before flying off north, but Dolgan was able to snap a few photos and alert his Cook County birder friends.
“This is a big deal,” Dolgan said. “I was on a high because I was just so excited.”
The wild turkey was his first turkey sighting in the area and the 240th species on his Cook County bird list. Since sharing the news in his birding newsletter, birdwatchers believe Saturday’s sighting to be the first wild turkey on the Northwest Side in at least 20 years and the first one seen at the forest preserve, according to data from eBird, a citizen birdwatcher site.
“It was one of those memorable experiences that just came totally unexpectedly and it was also funny it happened the first time I was seriously visiting LaBagh Woods,” Dolgan said.
The Jefferson Park resident said he’s tracked wild turkeys since 2019, when he saw one in Uptown, where he used to live. According to eBird, Dolgan said that was the first wild turkey spotted on the North Side.
Wild turkeys are rare nowadays but live in every Illinois county, according to the Illinois Department of National Resources, although the nonmigratory bird is most commonly found Downstate and in counties to the west and northwest.
Due to habitat loss and hunting, the bird was nearly eliminated in the state by 1910, according to the department. And with 46 million turkeys eaten each Thanksgiving, overhunting has become an issue for the survival of the species, according to the University of Illinois Extension at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Between 1959 and 1967, the state obtained wild-trapped turkeys from Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia to re-establish breeding populations. Between 1970 and 2000, state biologists were able to place more than 4,700 turkeys in 99 out of 102 counties after allowing the birds to reproduce in five locations in southern Illinois.
Chris Anchor, a senior wildlife biologist with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, said over the last two decades or so, the county has periodically seen wild turkeys show up due to people releasing them into the wild after having them as pets. But because the Department of Natural Resources did not release turkeys into northern Illinois, the population of wild turkeys in Cook and DuPage is too low to record.
“We do not have a reproducing, truly wild, wild turkey population in Cook County,” Anchor said. “The nearest wild birds are in Will County and Lake County.”
He predicts that people who release their pet turkeys into the wild do so with the intent of adding to the population or increasing biodiversity. But because the population is so sparse, most birds die off after a year or two of being in the wild.
Unlike other counties, wild turkeys are not hunted in Cook or DuPage because there are so few of them. Anchor said if there were a large wild turkey population, city dwellers would certainly notice.
“Within five to 10 years, they would be a nuisance,” he said of the turkeys. “They would be roosting on people’s cars, they would be chasing kids at the bus stop. … It would become a real nuisance and that’s why we don’t have wild birds released in Cook or DuPage.”
But that doesn’t mean a few wild turkey sightings can’t be enjoyed, especially as preservation efforts in LaBagh Woods take out invasive species and give way for more native plants to grow and for animals to flock to the area.
With these efforts to foster the land’s biodiversity and increase its density comes the hope that more wild turkeys could be seen, Anchor said.
“It’s a wonderful thing that’s going on at LaBagh Woods,” he said. “For birds in general, the habitat has improved so I think folks should enjoy them while they are there.”
Since seeing the wild turkey in Uptown, Dolgan has heard other birders spot them in various spots around the city. He said it’s clear there’s an increase in sightings in the Chicago area, which could mean there’s more to come.
“When I moved here 20 years ago, it would have been unheard of to see a turkey in Cook County and most of the collar counties,” Dolgan said.
He said his recent turkey sighting is a reminder that wildlife needs to be protected and that restoration efforts can help make a difference in the city’s biodiversity.
“LaBagh Woods is a real asset for the Northwest Side,” he said. “We have natural treasures here and it’s just about being attuned to what those are and experiencing them in a different way.”
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