I well remember the first wild turkey I ever saw. I was birding in Alleghany State Park with a friend, Kay McCann, and she said, “Let’s walk down this trail to the river. About a week ago, someone saw a wild turkey near here.” We went down the trail and sure enough, on the far bank of the river were two wild turkeys getting a drink. We froze in our tracks, and the big birds continued to drink.
They saw us but must have been very thirsty, or maybe the river in between us made them feel more secure. After all, they were in Pennsylvania. We had some good looks at the birds, but when we lowered our binoculars, the sharp-eyed turkeys caught the movement and turned to disappear back into the forest.
Turkeys were once very common over much of the United States, but they’re good eating, and there are no hunting laws to help protect them, which soon brought them to the brink of extinction. However, they are one of the great success stories of conservation. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to start breeding and releasing wild turkeys. Soon other states were using similar methods to reestablish turkeys in their states.
When we came to Colorado, we never saw turkeys in the Evergreen area, but the Colorado Division of Wildlife had trapped some wild birds in the Spanish Peaks area and released them in several places where they had occurred in the past. It wasn’t long before we saw and heard about turkeys in the area. Today, there are several good-sized local turkey herds. They are frequently drawn to bird feeders during the winter when snow covers their natural food, and most people become very attached to and protective of the birds in their area.
There are only two species of turkey: the North American wild turkey and the Central American occelated turkey. However, the North American wild turkey has been divided into five subspecies, which are very similar and usually found in different parts of their large range. However, with all the introductions of wild birds and the overlap in their ranges, they are interbreeding and not too easily separated.
The domestic turkey that we buy today is often considered better eating than its wild ancestors, which are tougher because of the life they lead. The domestic bird has been bred to have more white meat, but it is still basically the same bird that the Spanish took back to Spain from Mexico in the early 16th century. It was eventually traded to France and then to Turkey, where it was domesticated and traded to many other countries. Since no one knew its name, they would ask the butcher for “that big bird that came from Turkey.” Thus the name, which is as inaccurate as the Native Americans being called Indians.
Our wild turkey is known as Merriam’s wild turkey and is supposed to have white tips on its tail feathers and spots on its wings. These are buffy tan on the eastern birds. However, it is difficult to tell all the subspecies apart as they are now interbred.
Turkeys eat many kinds of insects. Some reports say as high as 300 species have shown up in their gizzards. Grasshoppers are one of their favorite foods, and studies have shown that about 90 percent of their food is vegetable matter and only 10 percent is animal. Locally, they eat the nuts that have fallen from the ponderosa pine trees. Water is also important to their well-being. They drink daily and so are often near springs or streams, and they also eat the greens that are found in wet places such as watercress.
The best time to look for turkeys is at dawn. They spend the night roosting in trees and at dawn they fly down to look for food and water. So, it pays to be out early. Anyway, a walk on Thanksgiving morning is a good way to see some of the things that have been growing all summer and to work up an appetite for your dinner. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.