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Through much of the spring and fall, Dave Ankney tromps through the Ontario woods in search of a most elusive prey.

It's eyesight is eight times superior to a human's. It can hear a branch snap a mile away. It's been known to make the craftiest of hunters look as sly as Wile E. Coyote.

Meet the clever, the cunning … turkey.

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"I know, I know, they have a reputation for being dumber than hell," Dr. Ankney said. "You get some flack for that but they're actually one challenging bird."

As Thanksgiving approaches, and superstore freezers overflow with rigid Butterballs, a burgeoning cohort of hunters will devour gobblers shot in the Ontario wilds - a region once wiped clean of the birds for 75 years.

In one of the most successful wildlife restocking programs in Canadian history, Southern Ontario is once again filled with the clucks and purrs of philandering toms and elusive hens, luring tens of thousands of killers in search of Thanksgiving dinner.

"I can't remember the last time I ate a store-bought bird," said Dr. Ankney, professor emeritus of avian ecology at the University of Western Ontario, the type of guy who will literally talk turkey for days on end. "We go all over the States - Missouri, Texas - hunting turkey. But nowhere else in Canada touches Ontario for turkey hunting. We have a few in the freezer at any one time."

More than 40,000 hunters registered to bag turkeys in Ontario last year. The hunt is split between two seasons, a hugely popular spring and a smaller fall season that started just two years ago, when turkey numbers in the province reached peaks no biologist ever anticipated.

"I would never have predicted what it's become," said Dave Reid, a Simcoe, Ont., biologist, avid turkey hunter and staff member for Quaker Boy, a company that manufactures turkey calls. "Certainly in my time it's the most successful example of wildlife management I've seen."

A hundred years ago, Ontario turkeys were toast, the last killed around 1909 following 60 years of concentrated hunting. Biologists tried for decades after to introduce captivity-raised birds into the wild, only to watch them be scooped up by hawks, coyotes and raccoons.

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"That was a complete waste of time," said Mr. Reid. "The first thing they do when they hatch is imprint on whatever they see, so they often thought they were humans."

A breakthrough came in the 1960s when researchers developed a Howitzer-propelled net that allowed biologists to capture live wild turkeys for the first time. By the early 1980s, restocking efforts were showing success all over the States and Dr. Ankney began urging the province to try again. Ontario eventually traded moose to Michigan, river otters to Missouri and partridges to New York - all in return for around 200 wild turkeys from a wide genetic spectrum.

They're now waddling into habitat once thought too harsh for gobblers.

"We assumed they would never go north into Shield country, but, by God, that's where they are, surviving some really severe weather," said Dr. Ankney.

Over 100,000 people have signed up for the hunt since the reintroduction began in 1984.

The species has held up well under all the shotgun fire thanks to a hunting season that starts following breeding and the toms' libidinous breeding habits.

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"In the spring, you can only target the males, the big gobblers, and they are highly polygamous," Dr. Ankney said. "One gobbler can take care of 10 or 15 hens. You can always tell them by the big smiles on their faces."

Many hunters never get that close. The hypersensitive birds act as if there's a predator behind every tree. In any given season, only one in three turkey hunters actually bags a bird, according to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. The secret lies in a variety of mouth- and hand-operated calls intended to imitate the staccato cluck of a willing hen or the panicked "kee-kee" of a lost young poult.

Even though the hunt carries a relatively low success rate, hunters find it strangely addictive.

"My first time out in 1987, I had no idea what I was doing," said Adrian Hare, of New Lowell, Ont., who's parlayed his turkey obsession into a successful guiding business. "But I was out in the woods, making calls that some bird would gobble back at. There's some magic there that hooks you. I kept doing that until the bird was walking in front of me and I took my first bird. I've never stopped."

As if the thrill of the hunt weren't enough of an attraction, there's also the thrill of carving the kill and slathering it with cranberry sauce.

"My wife cooks a wild bird that absolutely melts in your mouth," Mr. Hare said. "You'd just about faint if you had it. And, oh my, they sure taste better when you know you hunted it."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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