Wild Turkeys
Wild Turkeys
photo by Kristi Gilman-Miller

Wild Turkeys

by Darold Stenson of Walla Walla, WA

North American farmers, ranchers and sportsmen are very fortunate, as we are the only people in the world who get to observe, hunt and enjoy eating wild turkeys!

The wild turkeys of North America can be considered a truly miraculous group of birds. Their populations numbered in the untold millions prior to the arrival of the European settlers in the 1500’s. The next three hundred plus years saw them nearly exterminated due to rapid habitat loss and totally unregulated hunting pressure. They actually became extinct in over fifteen states where they had previously been abundant and their decline continued well into the twentieth century.

Luckily, with the passage of the Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, along with the foundations of the Wildlife Society and the National Wild Turkey Federation there has been a steady reestablishment of our nearly national bird, which it would have been had it been left up to Benjamin Franklin. Relocations and the careful management and stewardship by both wildlife experts and sportsmen along with farmers, ranchers, and landowners have been largely responsible for the advancements in the numbers of their populations and the locations of the wild turkeys. Wild turkey hunting seasons are now held in all states except for Alaska and officials there are working to rectify that. Wild turkey population numbers are now in excess of six million birds.

However, it is now feared that in some of these new transplant areas and states, the North American Wild Turkey, five distinct subspecies are becoming blurred. Geographic distinctions keep these five subspecies mostly breeding true but in some of the new areas where wild turkeys have been relocated, different species have been transplanted together or in separate batches at different times and they are now cross breeding.

In the language of the wild turkey hunter, a grand slam is accomplished when you successfully harvest each of the four major United States subspecies, the Easter, Merriam, Osceola, and the Rio Grande. You can claim a royal slam when you add the Gould, a subspecies from the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. You can achieve the world slam when you add to your harvest the Ocellated Turkey from Central America and southern Mexico.

The Ocellated Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Ocellate, is the smallest, the most colorful and they live in the most southern habitat of all of our wild turkeys.

The other five subspecies are similar but quite easy to tell apart when you come to know them. The Eastern Wild Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Silvestris, is distinguished by having brown tipped rump feathers and tail margins. The Eastern’s white wing bars are the same width as its black wing bars and extend all across the whole wing. As its name implies, they are naturally found in the eastern United States.

The Gould Wild Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Mexicana, is native to the mountains and the oak and pine foothills of northwestern Mexico and southwestern United States. They are sometimes referred to as the Sierra Madre Turkey or the Mexican Wild Turkey. The tips of a Gould’s rump and tail feathers are pure white. They have very long legs and usually they have black toes. They are the largest of all of the subspecies in skeleton size and in their average weight compared to the other subspecies. The Gould’s’ lower legs and feet are immense. The Gould also has a slightly more bluish-green tint to their feathers.

The Merriam Wild Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Merriami, is native to the pine foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains, but they have been successfully stocked in many of the states west of the Mississippi River. It is now thought that the Merriam was originally a domesticated turkey of early Native Americans that escaped, survived and thrived in this area after these original people did not. The Merriams have white margins on their rump and tail feathers that sometimes have a yellow tint to them. A Merriam gobbler’s lower legs will be shorter than six inches and their toes will have little dark pigment. The adult Merriam will have brownish colored legs because of dark pigmentation in their leg scales.

The Osceola Wild Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Osceola, is the smallest of the wild turkeys. They are distinguished from the Eastern by the dark barring on their wing feathers and they have brown tail margins. They are the darkest of all of the North American wild birds. They were named to honor a great chief of the Seminole Indian tribe and are found primarily in Florida.

The Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris Gallopavo Intermedia, live naturally in the southwestern United States and northeastern Mexico, but they too have been successfully relocated in many states. They are intermediate in appearance between Easterns, Goulds, and Merriams, however the Rio Grande’s tail margins and rump feathers are much lighter in color than the Easterns and the Osceolas but darker than the Merriams and the Goulds.

I’m not sure about my own feelings of the possibility of our relocated wild turkey subspecies bridging in their new areas but I would urge all aviculturists who would or are now breeding wild turkeys in captivity to be careful to keep their breeds as pure as possible with pureblood brood stock, not hybrids. Their natural differences are truly intriguing and very interesting!

With that being said, wild turkeys are still wild turkeys, no matter what their breeding pedigrees are. Few sights in our outdoors are as wondrous as watching a gobbler courting wild hens in the spring time while establishing his dominance over a group of jakes. Because of a lot of hard work and forethought by numerous sportsmen, farmers, ranchers and landowners, we and our children should be able to enjoy these beautiful wild birds for many years into the future.

Farmers and ranchers who do not have wild turkeys on your property but who are willing and able to provide or improve habitat for them will be rewarded greatly by their presence on your property. A small flock of wild turkeys will consume massive amounts of grasshoppers and other harmful insects. Please contact your local wildlife officials to discuss the possible relocation of wild birds to your suitable property if anyone is interested.