By Rebecca Ramsey
This week, many of us will have the traditional turkey dinner on our tables as we celebrate Thanksgiving. The turkey we typically feast upon is not the ones we see in our fields, forests and where I live in Sheridan – all over town! The birds on our table are typically farm raised domestic varieties, and the wild turkey we see here in Montana are Merriam’s Wild Turkey, one of five subspecies of wild turkey in North America.
The five subspecies are all native to North America, but live in different habitat areas and have slight differences: the eastern wild turkey (M. g. silvestris, meaning “forest turkey”) resides in roughly the eastern half of the United States and is the most abundant of the subspecies; the Florida wild turkey (M. g. Osceola, named for Seminole chief, Osceola), resides in the southern half of Florida; the Rio Grande wild turkey (M. g. intermedia) resides in the south-central plains states and northeastern Mexico; the Gould’s wild turkey (M. g. Mexicana) is found in northwestern Mexico and parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico; and lastly the subspecies we find here, the Merriam’s wild turkey (M. g. merriami), named in honor of C. Hart Merriam, first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey.
Merriam’s wild turkey are native to the pine forests of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, and have been introduced to Montana, Nebraska, Washington, Oregon and California. Since their introduction, their range now includes portions of Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota. The adult males, known as a tom or gobbler, weigh an average of 18-24 pounds, but have been recorded as large as 28 pounds! (Try to fit that big guy in the oven!) The Merriam’s wild turkey is characterized by near white tipped tail coverts, and white tail feather tips, as well as white tipped breast feathers. The body feathers are iridescent purple, bronze and blue. Female turkey are known as hens, and weigh an average of 8 – 14 pounds.
The Merriam’s wild turkey have a wide variety of foods in their diet, including chokecherries, bear berries, pine nuts and grains. I’ve had local ranchers report of opportunist turkey eating corn and other grains with their cattle! They also enjoy eating insects such as grasshoppers, spiders and beetles. The Merriam’s lay their eggs from late March to early April, and typically lay a clutch of 10 – 12 eggs. This process can take up to two weeks, as they often only lay one egg a day. The incubation period is 26 – 28 days, and the hen will move the eggs periodically throughout the day. The eggs usually hatch within a 24 hour period of one another. The hen and her newly hatched poults (baby turkeys) will leave the nest within 24 hours of being hatched in search of food.
The wild turkey is a native bird to the North American continent, and was the largest ground-nesting bird that was first found by European immigrants. Their numbers were abundant, and were written about in early historical accounts of the colonial settlements. But as the European settlers expanded through the forests and plains, they cut down the forests for building needs, cooking fires and warmth and eventually expanding the landscape for agriculture. This eliminated much of the primary turkey habitat while the settlers were simultaneously hunting the turkey year round, as they were an important source of food for the pioneers. There were reportedly 4 million colonists by 1790, and by 1813 Connecticut had completely lost its wild turkey population, Vermont in 1842 and then other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey had vanished from 18 of the original 39 states.
In the late 1930s, conservation practices began to improve, and previously clear cut forested areas began to recover, returning suitable habitat. Laws to protect wildlife began to be enacted and the nation began recovering from the depression. After World War II, serious efforts began to help restore the wild turkey populations with trapping and relocating birds, then to planting pen-raised birds. Neither were hugely successful, but as habitat and game management advanced, so did the recovery of wild turkey. By 1990, wild turkey numbered about 3.5 million birds across North America, and today there are around 7 million.
Wild turkey had dwindled to be found only in inaccessible areas in isolated pockets of population, but now occupy more square miles of habitat than any other game bird in North America according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, who reports that they occupy every state except Alaska. In 1991 spring hunting seasons were opened for the first time I every one of the 49 states with turkey populations.
Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving and turkey as the centerpiece of the meal did not become common until about 1800. But as you celebrate the bounty of the land, give thanks for the people who helped to recover the Merriam’s wild turkey, an interesting and tasty bird, and give thanks for living in this beautiful place with them!