In the pre-settlement days some 10 million turkeys roamed the eastern region of what is now the United States. The big birds played a key role in the physical and spiritual well being of our country’s early inhabitants.
Turkeys were a major food source of American Indians, though some tribes, including the Cheyenne and Apache, reportedly would not eat the fowl. Many tribes used turkey feathers to make robes, blankets and fletching for hunting arrows. Native American hunters sometimes tipped their arrows with the sharp spurs of old gobblers. Tools were carved out of turkey bones. Indians learned to yelp through the small wing bones of turkeys to call other turkeys into bow range.
Indians fashioned ceremonial headdresses of turkey feathers. Some tribes revered beards, spurs and feathers as religious and spiritual symbols.
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found wild turkeys in parts of what are now 39 states. Early settlers wrote, “flocks of hundreds and thousands of the fowl.” Unlike today’s wild turkeys, those early birds were apparently unwary and easy to approach. The settlers were struck by the “turkey cock’s” splendid gobbling and fan-tailed strutting during the spring courtship period.
Turkeys were a major food source for settlers who spread out across the vast, wild country. As pioneers pushed west and cut and cleared virgin forests, the turkey’s habitat changed and disappeared. In the late 1700s the birds were exposed to heavy market hunting (some historical reports mention that hens sold for 6 cents apiece while big gobblers brought a quarter at game markets). It all spelled doom for turkeys. By the mid-1800s the big bird had been eliminated from nearly half of its original range.
In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained. But around 1920, things began to change for the better. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Some visionary leaders began to write and enact conservation laws, like the Federal Aid in Restoration Act. The groundwork was laid for the remarkable comeback of the American turkey.
During the last 75 years, state and federal wildlife agencies, funded by sportsmen’s dollars, have spent hundreds of millions on habitat-improvement and turkey trap-and-transplant projects. Over the past three decades the National Wild Turkey Federation and its partners have chipped in with more than $258 million to conserve more than 13 million acres of wildlife habitat.
The result has been one of the most impressive conservation achievements on record. The wild turkey has not only been restored throughout its original range, but it has also been introduced into many other regions. Today, some 7 million big birds roam 49 states (all except Alaska); they are well established in Ontario, Canada, too. The NWTF has opened a chapter in Mexico. Even though loss of habitat and other environmental factors remain causes for concern, turkey populations will continue to stabilize and grow well into the 21st century.
Wild Turkey Subspecies & Habitats
The wild turkey’s genus name is Meleagris and its species name is gallopavo, which translates to “chicken-like peafowl.” There are five recognized subspecies in North America.
The Eastern Turkey
The Eastern subspecies, M. g. silvestris, is the most abundant and widespread turkey in North America. More than 5 million birds inhabit 37 Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states from Maine to Missouri. The subspecies has also been stocked in places like California and Oregon. Eastern populations are stable or growing in many parts of North America.
Eastern turkeys live in diverse habitats, from Northeastern forests to Southern swamps to Midwestern farmlands. Mixed oak-pine forests interspersed with fields, creeks and rivers provide prime habitats for growing flocks of the birds. Since Easterns live mainly in woodlands, their home ranges are relatively small, with many flocks roaming only several thousand acres.
Eastern turkeys roost high in trees on points, flats or knolls just below ridge tops. In flatlands the birds are likely to roost anywhere, but they often prefer straight hardwood trees that grow on small rises or hummocks. When the weather turns cold, windy, rainy or snowy, flocks or individual birds seek warmth and shelter in evergreen trees.
In the spring, gobblers strut in open terrains where hens feed and nest—pastures, food plots, burns, clearcuts and the like. Woodland areas with thin understory—oak flats, creek bottoms, logging roads, power-line cuts—are also good strut zones where toms meet up with hens.
The Osceola (Florida) Turkey
The Osceola subspecies, M. g. osceola, is the namesake of the Seminole Indian chief who led his tribe in a bloody border war against the Americans in the early 1800s. The Osceola is commonly called the Florida turkey since its range is limited to the southern two-thirds of the Sunshine State. Some 80,000 to 100,000 Osceola turkeys inhabit middle and southern Florida today. Wild turkeys found in northern Florida are regarded as Eastern/Osceola hybrids.
The turkeys of Florida roost in moss-laden cypress trees that grow in or on the edges of swamps, ponds or flooded creek bottoms. Because of their boggy roost habitat, Florida birds often fly 50 to 100 yards or more at first light to alight in the nearest swath of dry, open ground. Improved cattle pastures and burns are the places to find turkeys feeding in the fall and feeding, strutting and breeding in the spring. In March and April, when the fierce sun is overhead in midmorning and afternoon, gobblers move into shady palmetto hammocks and hardwood bottoms, where they strut for feeding and nesting hens.
The Merriam’s Turkey
The Merriam’s subspecies, M. g. merriami, was named after C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 birds inhabit 15 Western states from South Dakota to Idaho to New Mexico. Small populations of Merriam’s turkeys are also found in southern Manitoba and Alberta.
Merriam’s turkeys inhabit a variety of western areas, from sparsely timbered prairies and grasslands to scrub-oak and pine foothills and mountains. Many Merriam’s flocks are loosely migratory, living up near snow-capped peaks in spring and summer and moving miles to lower elevations in fall and winter.
In the Southwest, most Merriam’s turkeys roost in ponderosa pines on the sides of steep, rocky canyons. North- and east-facing slopes near creeks seem to be preferred. Like their Eastern cousins, Merriam’s birds often roost on points and knolls below ridgelines.
In Montana, South Dakota and other upper western states, Merriam’s turkeys roost in pine trees scattered across the grasslands and plains. On the easternmost edge of their range, for example in eastern Nebraska, hens and gobblers roost in hardwood trees like their Eastern cousins.
Hens feed and nest in canyon bottoms and grasslands near scrub-oak thickets. Once or twice a day in arid regions, hens head for water (a creek, stock tank, etc.) with poults and toms in tow.
In the spring, gobblers strut for hens in mountain meadows or grasslands near ponderosa roosts. On the eastern fringes of their habitat, toms display in oak flats, fields and logging roads like their Eastern brothers do.
The Rio Grande Turkey
In the late 1800s a scientist named Sennett observed that the Rio Grande subspecies differed from the other American turkeys by being intermediate in appearance, hence its name M.g. intermedia. The Rio is native to the south central plains and is most abundant in that region today. The subspecies has been successfully transplanted to several West Coast states. While approximately 1 million Rios inhabit 13 plains and western states the subspecies could easily be dubbed the “Texas wild turkey.” A whopping 85 percent of America’s Rio Grande flock roams the Lone Star State.
In Kansas and Oklahoma, Rio Grande turkeys roost in cottonwood, sycamore and hackberry trees along streams and sometimes adjacent to grain fields. Down in Texas, the beating heart of Rio country, the birds sleep in the tallest live oak or cottonwood trees on ranches, especially stands that rim creek or rivers. Good roost trees are few and far between on many open, mesquite-laced ranches (sometimes turkeys roost on power poles and fence posts!). In the fall it is not uncommon to find 100 or more birds packed into a single tight stand of big trees. In the spring 20 or more longbeards, along with gaggles of hens and jakes, might roost side by side in tall oaks or cottonwoods.
Rios strut all over the place in their open habitat during the spring mating season. But many gobblers prefer sections of crop fields or pastures near creeks or stock tanks, especially if thick hen-nesting cover is nearby.
The Gould’s Turkey
Huntable pockets of the Gould’s turkey, M.g. mexicana, inhabit the mountains of northwestern Mexico. Several hundred Gould’s birds currently roam mountain ranges in southern Arizona and New Mexico. State wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Federation are working to expand the Gould’s population in the southwestern U.S.
The Gould’s is a mountain bird, living in Southwestern hills that range from 4,500 to more than 7,000 feet in elevation. The habitat is laced with steep, rough and rocky canyons and drainages. Pinon pines and several species of scrub oaks in the canyon bottoms provide turkeys with good food, roost trees and nesting and security cover.