2 Page History: The Wild Turkey

(Meleagris gallopavo)

This is our first post in what I hope is continuing series in discussing the history of wild game in North America. The goal is to provide as much information and trivia as possible within 2 pages of text, or about 1000 words. What better wild game animal to talk about in an inaugural post than the Wild Turkey, to me the real harbinger of spring and hunting in the new year.  

Wild turkeys get a bad rap from their domesticated brethren, and are often seen as gullible, comical and relatively stupid. The hunters that choose to chase them however, know that this is far from true. The turkey in its wild, undomesticated form is a thrilling and at times challenging bird to hunt. It is a proven survivor, having endured predation by man and beast for a very long time. So far, in the 2017 season, this extends to me as as well; just last week I missed a strutting tom at 26 yards. He was coming toward me face first and at full fan. A bit of "buck fever" and a jerked trigger sent the shot high and him off into the trees.

Turkeys are the largest member of the grouse family, and the second largest bird in North America, after the Trumpeter swan. The adult male eastern wild turkey weighs in at right about 17-21 pounds, though much larger birds have been recorded throughout the species range. A new world record was set during the 2015 hunting season in Lyon County, Kentucky when a 37.6 pound turkey was harvested.

The wild turkey has a long history in North America. Early settlers recorded flocks in Ohio, Missouri and along the Oklahoma Texas border that numbered in the thousands. Cortez, during his bloody expedition of 1519 recorded that the bird had already been domesticated throughout Mexico and South America.

Turkeys have been on the continent a lot longer than that though.

Wild Turkeys shares an ancient ancestor with the peacock that crossed the bearing land bridge about 30 million years ago. After some serious adaptation to living in North America, the proto-turkey evolved to the modern turkey during the back end of the Pleistocene Epoch about 2.5 million years ago. By the end of the Pleistocene there were four distinct species of turkey strutting around the countryside, the eastern turkey, the oscellated Turkey, the southwestern turkey and the California turkey. The latter two species lived in the southwest and were much more susceptible to environmental change and human predation.  The theory is that during a rather nasty dry spell about 11,500 years ago, the southwest turkeys were forced to flock around ever increasingly shrinking water sources which grouped them tightly together and left them extremely vulnerable to the Paleo-Indians who had recently crossed over from Asia. They were soon extinct. The eastern turkey and oscellated turkeys were saved from this fate due to the environment they lived in, which contained heavier tree cover and a lot more water than the arid southwest.

Paleoindians weren’t the only ones eating turkey for dinner though. The extinct California turkey left a lot of evidence of his passing at the La Brea tar pits, more than any species of bird, other than the golden eagle. The tar pits were a real no win situation for both predator and prey species that found their way onto the sticky stuff. Turkeys would get mired in the tar, making for easy pickings for the golden eagles, who upon swooping in for the kill would become trapped themselves. A total of 11,116 fossil specimens from at least 791 individual turkeys had been found in the tar pits as of 2006.

From those initial contacts by prehistoric hunters and continuing into modern times, the turkey has stayed an important cultural component throughout North America. Aztecs honored the bird twice a year during religious festivals and believed that the turkey was a manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, a trickster god. Navajos in the American southwest were known to capture and pen wild turkeys and fatten up the birds for food. Full-fledged domestication of wild turkeys first began in Mexico; in the eastern United States, domestication wasn’t really necessary due to their abundance in wild forested areas. One simply needed to walk off into the woods and hunt. Tribes used the turkey for more than just food. They were valued for their feathers; which were used in ritual cloaks and burial practices among other things.  

Europeans loved the flavor so much, that they transported the birds back to Europe in the 1500’s. In an interesting case on “the return of the prodigal son,” Pilgrims brought the birds back to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, which then bred with their wild colonial counterparts. As the frontier spread west, turkey numbers decreased to zero in many areas through overhunting and habitat destruction. By the end of the 19th century, the birds had pretty much been wiped out from coast to coast, with only an estimated 30,000 birds remaining. The turkeys that did survive did so by securing themselves in some of the most inaccessible and secluded areas of the Ozarks and Appalachians. They seemed in no hurry to hurry to increase their numbers and expand their territory, and the population remained small and at a level that threatened future extinction.

That’s where modern day Sportsman and Conservationists come in. Something had to be done to return the wild turkey to the large landscape. These birds were part of the fabric of North America, and had played no small part in the country’s founding.  They also were fun to hunt, and a great way to put some wild food on the table. By the 1920’s numerous states were trying reintroduction programs, with pretty dismal results. The first attempts involved releasing domestic turkeys into the wild; which were promptly served up as dinner for coyotes and other predators. Cross breading between domestic and wild turkeys also failed, as the offspring didn’t receive any of the survival traits necessary for a life in the wild and were once again an easy dinner for predators. Some biologists even managed to collect wild turkey eggs, and raised the wild hatchlings on protected game farms before releasing into the wild. Still they failed. Finally, starting in the 1940’s,  through a pretty spectacular program of inter-state cooperation, live birds were transported from places like Missouri to states like Minnesota, which traded 85 roughed grouse for 29 wild turkeys in 1973. The program was so successful, that the state’s first limited wild turkey hunt was conducted just five years later in 1978. A total of 94 birds were bagged.

Over the years turkey numbers have increased dramatically, with hunters harvesting an average of 5000 turkeys annually in Minnesota alone. Through the conservation efforts of sportsman and organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, numbers continue to grow. Today, there are more than 7 million turkeys roaming North America, from Canada on down to Mexico representing one of conservations greatest success stories and a true testament to the North American Model of Wild Life Conservation.

Further Reading:

Bochenski, Zbigniew; and Ken Campbell. 2006. The extinct California turkey, Meleagris californicus, from Rancho La Brea: Comparative Osteology and Systematics. Natural History Museum of California Publications.

Dickenson, James G. 1992. The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management. Stackpole Books.

Eaton, S. W. 1992. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). In The Birds of North America, No. 22 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.