A wild turkey walks along County S in Outagamie County just northwest of Stephensville.
Here's a little tale that might convince even the vegans among us to set aside their Tofurky this Thanksgiving and enjoy a real drumstick. And one, too, that ought to help convince legislators to replace our state bird, the boring American robin, with something more fierce and fitting.
The awesome wild turkey.
Jesse Nash was driving down U.S. 14 outside Viroqua in his big, red Ford Explorer when he happened upon a flock of them - not an unusual occurrence. Viroqua is close to the place where, 38 years ago, the Department of Natural Resources launched an incredibly successful reintroduction of the species known as Meleagris gallopavo (in Latin, "big tasty bird").
The wardens did it in a brilliant way. They traded 135 Coulee Region ruffled grouse for a bunch of turkeys that had been living unhappily in Missouri, and then released them in Vernon County's Bad Axe Watershed. This, rumor has it, led to them being known as "some Bad Axe birds."
Other releases followed, and nowadays you can find wild turkeys up the Wazee. I refer here, of course, to our state's deepest lake.
Wisconsin, in fact, has become America's Mecca for wild turkey hunters. Over 60,000 birds were taken in the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009 alone. Hens and gobblers are now in every county - and even, in at least one instance, in the front seat of a big, red Ford Explorer.
"Craziest thing that ever happened to me," Nash said.
Nash and a buddy were cruising down the highway in late October 2008 when, all of a sudden, an enormous giant turkey flew right into - and through - the windshield.
"Landed on my lap," said the 26-year-old, still incredulous.
Wild turkeys are not like little, docile robins. They're powerful. Hitting even an average-sized wild turkey can be like running into a flying bowling ball. Nash says his bird was far from average.
After hitting the roof, "it fell right down through the windshield, like a 35-pound turkey," he said. "The DNR lady said, 'If you would have shot it, it would be a state-record bird.'"
Nash says the turkey did so much damage that the SUV had to be totaled. He was able to pull over while the big fella flapped around for 30 seconds before - sadly (but fortunately, you know, if you've ever been close to one) - checking out for good right there in the Explorer.
"Oh God, we were scared," Nash said.
Nash didn't get to keep it because, he says, he didn't have a permit (really). So I can't vouch for the size. But Vernon County Sheriff John Spears says he saw the aftermath of the accident with his own eyes.
He also says wild turkeys don't cause nearly as many accidents as deer. They don't cause as much crop damage either, according to Dave Matheys, a DNR wildlife biologist. The main reason we have to hunt them - aside from the fact they occasionally attack SUVs - is they like to mate. A lot.
Without our hunters, these things would be almost as common as our unofficial state bird, the mosquito. Luckily, the turkeys serve another function. Wild turkey meat, says Matheys, is darker and drier than the stuff you buy at the store, and "just delicious."
The American robin is a wimpy choice for a state bird, and not even a unique one. It's also the state bird of both Connecticut and Michigan. Alabama, Massachusetts and South Carolina claim the wild turkey as as their "state game bird," in the meantime, but we have a much better claim.
Our turkeys are both plentiful and fierce. They can take out an SUV and still kick. At least for a while.
And, happily, they only get better after that.
- Mike Nichols: firstname.lastname@example.org