Utah's Wild Turkeys
Photo courtesy of National Wild Turkey Foundation
The month of November brings family and friends together to feast for a day and also brings Utah’s hunters together for the fall season Wild Turkey hunt. A common dish on the table this month will be one of our largest and heaviest birds in North America, weighing from 6 -19 pounds, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Approximately 42 million households will eat (domestic) turkey for Thanksgiving. This tradition for European settlers may have started back in 1621; colonist William Bradford wrote about turkey hunting in his journal entries. However, Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys centuries before the arrival of the first Europeans. Until very recently, turkey was still considered a decadence in European cuisine.
The wild turkey can be found year round throughout Northern America, Mexico, parts of southern Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Most of the turkey population can be found in open woodland but the types of woodland will vary depending on the region. For example, turkeys found in the Southwestern regions are often found in open grassy savannah with small oak trees and in Utah, the Wild Turkeys inhabit ponderosa pine forests, oak tree forests, cottonwood tree bottoms and pinyon/juniper habitats. Turkeys prefer habitats that create “mast-producing” fruit such as acorns and other nuts. In Utah, these habitats are gambels oak thickets and pinyon forests.
Wild Turkeys are one of the largest of the game birds. Adult males are called Toms or gobblers, one-year-old males are called Jakes, adult females are called hens, and one-year-old females are called Jennies. The two species of turkeys that inhabit the Utah area are the Rio Grande and Merriam. Both of these species have long legs, wide rounded tails and small heads with a slim neck. Merriam’s turkeys are considered mountain birds, spending their summers in ponderosa forests and up into spruce and fir forests (7,000 – 11,000 ft. in elevation). Rio Grande turkeys, on the other hand, are associated with cottonwood river bottoms.
The bare skin on the male’s necks is very noticeable on this bird. During the breeding season, in the spring, breeding males’ necks turn a bright red. Otherwise, this skin is a grayish blue. During courtship, male turkeys strut and fan their tails and produce the recognizable “gobble”, which can be heard up to a mile away. The beard, located on the chest of male turkeys is also a good feature to looks for when determining sex. The beards on the males are black fibrous hairs that hang down from the chest area and can be long enough to touch the ground. The females on the other hand are mostly dark brown, lighter in coloration on the bare neck region and express a shorter bill than the males.
The population of the Wild Turkey decreased immensely after being hunted out of large parts of their range across North America. The populations became very low to about 1,900 in the 1930’s. When European settlers arrived in Utah, the turkey species had already been hunted out of the area; however, historical records indicate that they did co-exist with Native Americans. Until the 1950s, transplants of turkeys back into Utah were not successful. However, relocation of Merriam’s wild turkeys from Colorado to Grand, Garfield, Kane, Iron and Washington were very successful, creating an established population that has spread into several parts of Utah. In 1989, Utah began a successful relocation of Rio Grande turkeys into Washington County, using birds from Arizona, Colorado and several other states.
The hard work put into restoring the Wild Turkey habitats and the continuing work for these birds has allowed us to enjoy the presence of this bird either at our table or the quick view of a flock running across the road. The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources estimates that there are as many as 25,000 wild turkeys in Utah. Each spring locals and visitors are often pleasantly surprised to see male turkeys strutting for the females in a small field or on a dirt road. As of 2013, residents of Utah can enjoy 2 hunting seasons for wild turkey. In April, we have a limited entry and youth hunting season. After the limited entry hunt, there is a general (over the counter) hunt. If you miss out, Utah citizens can also participate in a general fall hunt. Turkey management has been so successful in southern Utah, that there is even a few tags available to hunt turkeys that are causing agricultural issues because of their large flock size. In 2013, Utah provided wild turkey 9733 tags to hunters.
Either way we choose to enjoy this bird we should be grateful for the people and organizations that have put in all the hard work and hours to make this possible for us. Thank you, and Happy Wild Turkey Day!
All About Birds. 2015. Wild Turkey. Retrieved from http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wild_turkey/id
Baird, B. 2015. Restoring wild turkeys in east Texas. Retrieved from http://www.nwtf.org/conservation/article/restoring-wild-turkeys
Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster.
National Geographic. 2015. Wild Turkey. Retrieved from http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/wild-turkey/
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. 2013. Utah Wild Turkey Management Plan. Retrieved from https://wildlife.utah.gov/uplandgame/turkey/turkey_management_plan.pdf