SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Ask average Americans what they know about the feeding of a turkey and the sum of knowledge is this: Turkeys are ready to eat when the plastic thermometer pops out.
When it comes to the eating habits of America's wild turkeys, though, the presumption of knowledge suddenly increases.
There isn't much really known about the native birds that are making a comeback in Illinois -- not as much as some would like, at any rate.
The turkeys were wiped out in Illinois nearly 100 years ago, but they have been restocked. They are now protected with controlled hunting seasons.
"Years ago, I remember one biologist insisting that the only place in Illinois a wild turkey could survive was in the Shawnee National Forest," said Jerry Garver, a state wildlife biologist who has helped guide the state's successful wild turkey reintroduction program.
Since those first birds were released in a few Southern Illinois counties in 1958, wild turkeys now exist in 99 of Illinois' 102 counties.
So well have turkeys adapted that a few residents fear that the birds might go the way of the white-tailed deer and actually become a nuisance. Farmers who notice huge flocks and discover uprooted seedlings often suspect the high-profile birds.
"Turkeys are getting blamed for a lot of things," Garver said, pointing out that crop damage being attributed to flocks of turkeys is probably being committed by more traditional pests.
Tracking crops, gizzards
Now, a two-year field study under way at Southern Illinois University intends to settle the question of what, exactly, all those turkeys are eating, and whether they inflict significant damage to crops.
"Basically, we're studying the wild turkey's role in agricultural damage," explains Chris Greene, a 29-year-old graduate student at SIU's Cooperative Center for Wildlife Research.
Greene recently trapped six wild turkeys in Jackson County and attached radio transmitters to each of them. He will follow the three hens and three jakes to monitor their feeding patterns.
"We'll also be looking at crops and gizzards hunters send in to us during the spring and fall hunting season," Greene said.
By analyzing the turkeys' diet throughout the year, Greene will be able to demonstrate scientifically just what wild turkeys eat.