Immigrant Turkeys

That’s right.  Turkeys are not supposed to be here.  North Dakota is a bit too far north of their natural historic range of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.  It was generally assumed that North Dakota’s winters limited the ability for turkeys to thrive here.

Over 60 years ago, they were introduced into the Missouri, Knife, and Heart river ecosystems.  Then they spread.  Everywhere.

We find turkeys in the Badlands near tree breaks along open areas that have access to water.


Where are the turkeys?

From the prairies of central North Dakota to the Badlands of North Dakota, you’ll find the birds walking with jerks and spasms through the trees and brush. Typically, they weigh about 15 pounds. That means good eating when the annual turkey hunting season in North Dakota puts a large number of these birds on the Thanksgiving Table.

Typical turkey habitat in North Dakota consists of riparian corridors and woody draws with adequate roost trees, forage and nesting and brood-rearing habitat. In North Dakota, turkeys are found along the Missouri River and other major river systems in the state, the badlands in Billings and McKenzie counties, the pine forest in Slope County and the woodlands in Dunn, Pembina and Bottineau counties. North Dakota Game and Fish Department


Our backroad adventures often take us through turkey neighborhoods. These in McKenzie County.



Transplanting has extended the distribution. As a result, now you can find them north to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Alberta; west to Utah, Nevada, and California; northwest to Oregon and Washington; and northeast to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Manitoba. Here’s the scoop.


Not all the turkeys in the state are wild. Some ranchers and farmers keep a few domestic turkeys on hand to control insects.

Here’s a fun fact, compliments of the Bismarck Tribune:

Turkey droppings tell a bird’s sex and age. Male droppings are j-shaped; female droppings are spiral-shaped. The larger the diameter, the older the bird.


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If you visit the Badlands and see a turkey flock, they will have their backs turned to you. That’s because they are getting away — they saw you before you saw them. They have very keen eyesight and are much smarter than their domesticated cousins.

Turkeys in the Red River Valley

It was a different story on the other side of the Dakota Territory.  They had been quite prolific in the northern Red River Valley near the Canadian border. An 1885 article in the Pembina newspaper said  social interaction and home life was limited because “most everyone was out on a hunt for turkey for Thanksgiving”

30 years later,  turkeys were nearly hunted out. A Grand Forks newspaper editorial in November 1912 asked, “What shall we do for Thanksgiving Dinner when the turkeys are all gone?  The wild turkey will be extinct by 1920.”

No more turkey trot

The turkey population was not extinguished, but social watchdogs hoped the turkey trot would become extinct.

The Ward County Independent of Minot reprinted an Edinburg editorial on June 20, 1912:

A newspaper clipping against the turkey trot

Ward County newspaper clipping warns against dancing the way turkeys walk.

In passing an ordinance prohibiting the dancing of the turkey trot, grizzly bear and the moonbeam waltz in the dance halls in Minot, the Minot authorities forget to include the barn dance. We admit being unfamiliar with the contortions necessary to properly execute the three dances placed under the ban, but we do know that the once popular schottische and its graceful glides and slides has been prostituted into what they fitly name the barn dance. … It should have no audience except for the cow’s…it is resembles a stampede more than anything else.” 

The turkey trot was nearing extinction.  It had already been banned in Milwaukee.



Meanwhile, back in the North Dakota Badlands

The Williston Graphic was taking a stand against immorality, drunkenness and stay husbands who frequented turkey trot restaurants.

The Williston Graphic, November 20, 1913

 “…good cooking and good homes will prevent drunkenness. That rate and fortunate combination will do much more than that. It will keep the husband away from the club and put the “turkey trot” restaurants out of business.

Those poor turkeys, forcibly shipped in to the Badlands to populate the region when just years before, there was concern they would be wiped out in the Red River Valley.  And all the while, cultural watchdogs were warning that people shouldn’t dance the way that turkeys trot.

So, there. Are you tired of turkey, yet?

The birds are part of the wildlife ecosystem in the North Dakota Badlands. Here is a sample of other animals of the Badlands.  Browse and shop images, wall art, and other products at


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