ROCKFORD -- Two young turkeys slowly worked their way to the ever-busy corner of Spring Creek and Alpine roads during a recent morning's rush hour. They paid the oncoming traffic no attention as they foraged for food a few feet away from the scores of passing cars near the grounds of the Christian Science Church. Across the street, high on a hill, a flock of at least eight more turkeys lumbered across the front lawn of an office complex.
It's not unusual for all four lanes of Spring Creek Road to come to a standstill as a line of turkeys plod single-file across traffic.
It's a sight that would have been unheard of anywhere in Illinois just a generation ago, before one of the most successful conservation efforts and species reintroductions in American history.
Nearly stamped out
Deforestation and unregulated hunting decimated turkey populations across America in the late 19th century. By 1920, the birds had been wiped out except for a few remote pockets in the Ozark and Appalachian mountains.
The turkeys we see in the Rock River Valley today are the descendents of the precious few that survived in the harshest parts of the Missouri Ozarks, where their habitat wasn't cut down and where settlers didn't dare to hunt.
Despite the growth of cities, populations, homes and roadways over the last 100 years, there's more habitable land now for wildlife than there was then, said Doug Dufford, wildlife biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"Think about what northern Illinois looked like in the latter half of the 1800s," Dufford said. "Settlers came in and would look at the prairies and say, `Well, obviously that can't be good soil because it doesn't even support trees.' So forests were converted to farmland. Timber was the main source of fuel. They needed wood for steam engines and to heat homes and for construction."
And when people had to provide their own food, a turkey was a good thing to bring home.
Back from the brink
Early reintroduction efforts failed in the 20th century.
Over several decades, biologists bred domestic turkeys with wild turkeys.
Hundreds of thousands of turkeys were bred in a coop and turned free in the wild across the country, Dufford said.
It worked about as well as releasing a litter of puppies into the wild and expecting them to turn into a wolf pack.
The method that ultimately worked, that brought sustainable turkey populations back to Illinois and the country, seems more likely thought up by Wile E. Coyote to catch the Road Runner than from wildlife biologists.
"They shot a net, attached with weights at the end, out of a cannon," Dufford said.
Biologists knew they had to catch wild turkeys. And so, they painstakingly used propelled nets and bait traps to capture large numbers of wild turkeys that had the survival skills a domestic bird could never learn.
The Illinois DNR started releasing the wild birds in Jo Daviess County in 1980. When it worked, they reintroduced the turkeys to the rest of northern Illinois.
The turkeys were reintroduced to Winnebago County in the 1990s.
The population here has its highs and lows, Dufford said.
For the past several years, it had been declining because of a string of wet and cold springs.
In the spring, newborn birds are particularly vulnerable to rain, Dufford said.
"It's like when a sleeping bag gets wet it loses all of its insulating qualities," Dufford said.
Populations are expected to climb this year, thanks to one of the driest and hottest springs on record.
The turkeys have now been reintroduced to nearly every corner of the state. The last turkey was stocked -- captured and released -- in Illinois in 2000. The largest populations survive in the southern parts of the state.
The DNR doesn't keep a population count and Dufford said they couldn't begin to guess how many wild turkeys are in the area now.
"We keep track of signs that show if the population is increasing or decreasing," he said. "Now we're seeing that it's stable."