While we have many things to be thankful for, I think the wild turkeys must be thankful for being alive because these big, beautiful, wild birds came very close to extinction.
This great American bird was fairly common over much of America and was taken to Europe in the early 16th century where it was domesticated and became a very popular dish. In America, it was also very popular, but there were no domestic turkeys to buy at the market.
If you wanted turkey, you had to go out and hunt for one. This became more and more difficult as the birds became scarcer. Also, the domesticated birds produced by such brand names as Butterball began to appear, and they were better than the wild birds because they were not as tough and had more white meat.
I can remember that we always had turkey for Christmas dinner when I was young. My father was one of nine children and when the family got together for Christmas at my grandfather’s, it took two 20-pound turkeys to feed us all. We stayed home for Thanksgiving and had chicken or goose if we were lucky.
It was not a big holiday and was certainly not the beginning of the holiday season. During the Depression, we were thankful just to be together and have a goose for dinner that we had raised ourselves.
Wild turkeys were nonexistent in the area we lived in, but I well remember the first two I saw, which was around 1940 in Allegheny State Park. It was considered an unusual record and just the beginning of the return to the mountain area.
Colorado also had many wild turkeys in the early days, but their popularity had reduced their numbers here as well. It was the combined efforts of several states’ Divisions of Wildlife, which saved the turkeys because they closed the hunting season and established a breeding program, so these great birds became reestablished in areas where they had once been common.
When we moved here in 1965, we never saw any turkeys locally. They were introduced and now have become fairly common in areas where they find enough food. For several years, Bill and I led turkey trots for the local Audubon Society on Thanksgiving morning and could almost always find a few turkeys to show people. However, turkeys are very wary and will normally hear you long before you hear them and disappear over the hill.
There are now well-established herds in the Mount Evans, Upper Bear Creek and Critchell areas, and they can be seen rather easily at many places where they are fed regularly.
The western species of the wild turkey is know as Merriam’s wild turkey and can be distinguished from the eastern form by the band of white across the base of the tail. This band is chestnut colored in the eastern bird.
Wild turkeys eat both insects and vegetable matter. Grasshoppers are their favorites, but they eat other insects they may come across. They also eat grass and other green herbs, and I have frequently found them at a spring that has green watercress growing around it even during a warm winter. They also eat ponderosa pine seeds, acorns, kinnikinnick berries, snowberries and most grains.
You may occasionally see their tracks if there is soft mud around a spring for they like fresh water, but their big footprint is almost the same size as a great blue heron, which is more likely to be seen at Evergreen Lake or along our creeks. Look for turkeys wherever you hike. They are big and can hardly be mistaken for any other bird.
I am thankful we still have these birds in the wild and wish you a very happy holiday.