Strange facts about two of Minnesota’s favorite comeback animals

You know the 8-point buck you couldn’t find this fall? He and I actually met on the trail last week while I was out for a run. As I zipped around the bend on one of my favorite mountain biking trails (in the middle of town, nonetheless!), I saw his furry brown face in just enough time to avoid a nose to snout collision. With a huff, he and his doe companion turned and bounded off into the trees. Later that same day, I slammed on my brakes while driving in the country as a gaggle of gobbling turkeys strutted across the road, narrowly avoiding an early and overly-abundant Thanksgiving dinner.

Deer populations in Minnesota crashed in the late 1800s but has since rebounded.

Deer and turkeys are two of the most common charismatic megafauna that we see in the east metro and lower St. Croix Valley, but that wasn’t always the case. If we step back in time about 150 years, deer were common throughout the woods and river valleys of central and southern Minnesota, but turkeys only lived in the southeastern corner of the state near the Iowa border. Meanwhile, moose and woodland caribou reigned supreme in the northern forests and bogs. 

Like many North American wildlife species, however, deer and turkey populations crashed due to over-hunting, habitat loss, and disease in the late 1800s to early 1900s. By the 1880s, deer were rare in many parts of Minnesota, and by the 1930s, turkeys were completely extirpated, meaning locally extinct, from our state.  

Once extirpated from Minnesota, wild turkeys can now be found snacking in yards around the state.

In the early 1970s, the Minnesota DNR hatched a plan to capture wild turkeys from the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and release them in southeastern Minnesota. Happily, the first 29 imports settled in and learned to say “uff da,” so the reintroduction efforts continued. Today, there are an estimated 70,000 wild turkeys in Minnesota, and their populations are gradually expanding north and west. White-tailed deer have enjoyed a similar renaissance, and there are now estimated to be just under one million deer statewide.

Chances are, you see deer and turkeys on a near daily basis, but how well do you really know these animals?

Usually antlered deer are males, but that isn’t always the case.

Last fall, a group of hunters in Alabama was thrilled to take down what they assumed to be an 8-point buck. When they brought it home to clean, however, the hunters discovered that the deer had no male reproductive organs. In fact, according to Chis Cook with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, it is not as rare as you might think to find deer that display both male and female characteristics. In this particular example, the deer falls into a classification known as “pseudohermaphrodite,” which is an intersex condition in which sex organs are anatomically incorrect.

As long as we’re on the topic of wildlife genders, did you know that you can actually tell the difference between a male turkey and a female turkey, just by looking at their poop? The males, known as jakes or gobblers, drop long skinny poops that often curve like the letter J. Jennies and hens, on the other hand, leave little clumps that look more like coiled balls.

Image from Discover Magazine.

According to urban legend, the wild turkey almost became our national bird. This false tale is based on a letter written by Ben Franklin to his daughter, in which he complained that the bald eagle has poor morale character and is an ill-fitting representative for the United States. In a nod toward their patriotism, wild turkeys heads can change color from red to blue to white, depending on how calm or excited they are, demonstrating that they clearly know the colors of the flag. 

Here are a few other strange facts you might be surprised to learn about deer and turkeys. One is that a deer’s antlers can grow as fast as one-half to one inch per day. These antlers will grow continuously from spring until late fall, then fall off during the winter and begin again the next spring. As for turkeys, despite their rotund shape, they are actually quite fast. They can run at speeds of 25mph, fly short distances as fast as 50mph, and can actually even swim.

As we continue onward through the holiday season, enjoy your time with friends and family and watch out for those deer and turkeys!