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This state Capitol turkey has feathers

A young male wild turkey, or "jake," displays its plumage on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul Wednesday, May 10. The bird has become a frequent sight and even has a Twitter account in its honor: @mnlegturkey. (Photo courtesy of Amy Zipko)

ST. PAUL — Think what you may of Minnesota lawmakers. There's actually only one bona fide turkey at the Capitol.

A real wild turkey.

It's known variously (and uncreatively) as "the Capitol turkey" and "mnlegturkey" — that's "em-en-lej" as in Minnesota Legislature, and yes, it has a Twitter account.

Its bio reads: "I like long walks on the Capitol mall, food truck leftovers, and tweets about transparency. #mnleg"

Its prominence — at least during the current hurry-up-and-wait, end-of-session budget talks — has risen to the level where state Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican from Dellwood who's running for governor in 2018, is soliciting names from his Twitter followers.

The precocious young male is but one prominent member of a flourishing urban wild turkey population, one that breeds a range of curiosity, wonder and concern each spring when the birds emerge from seeming invisibility to gobble, cluck, strut, block traffic and generally make themselves conspicuous.

Is the population growing?

"There's a hierarchy with wild turkeys, so you get some bossy birds in there, especially in the spring mating season," said Cynthia Osmundson, regional wildlife director for the part of the state that includes the metro for the Department of Natural Resources. "They come with an attitude."

And people are noticing, Osmundson said, especially this year. The DNR has logged a number of media inquiries about metro-area wild turkeys this year, "more than ever before," she said. "But that's perception. Whether the population is up or not, it's hard to say."

The DNR doesn't estimate the metro wild turkey population, but the agency follows trends in numbers of turkeys killed by hunters as a proxy.

By those numbers, the statewide wild turkey population is probably increasing. Last spring, hunters registered some 12,300 wild turkeys, the second highest harvest since 1978, when modern turkey hunting began in the state.

Conservation success story

So far this spring, St. Paul's Animal Control has fielded fewer than 10 complaints about wild turkeys, which is similar to past years, spokesman Robert Humphrey said.

"Of course, 20 years ago, we got none," Humphrey said. "Because we had no wild turkeys."

Wild turkeys were essentially wiped out in Minnesota, as well as much of the eastern United States, by the early 1900s. But in the 1970s, the DNR and other conservation groups, including the National Wild Turkey Federation, began a series of reintroduction campaigns, beginning in far southwest Minnesota.

The results are evident. Today, the population has expanded, naturally, to nearly the entire state — all but the pine forests of northeastern Minnesota, where the birds likely never lived.


Meanwhile, the Capitol turkey roams the hallowed grounds in St. Paul, occasionally halting lawmakers and lobbyists. Its symbolism and political affiliation are the subject of speculation and bad puns. Biologically, it should probably be named some variation of Jake; that's what yearling male wild turkeys are called. ( A female yearling is a "jenny.")

The jake's presence has reached the highest levels of power, said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka.

"You know, Benjamin Franklin wanted our national (bird) to be a turkey because they were wise. So maybe that's a good sign," said Gazelka, a Republican from near Nisswa who has been locked in budget negotiations with Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders for days.

Actually, the widely held belief that Franklin wanted the wild turkey to grace our nation's seal and currency is a myth.

Budget negotiations by lawmakers continued Thursday, as did the naming effort for their bird.