Preening, Strutting and Gobbling with North State Turkeys
● By Laura Christman
Let's Talk Turkey
By Laura Christman
Photo by Matt Meshriy
In November, thoughts turn to turkeys. So, what’s your turkey expertise – beyond defrosting and roasting times? How much do you know about the turkeys who wander among us in the wilds and through neighborhoods?
California is home to some 250,000 wild turkeys, according to Matt Meshriy, environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Upland Game Program in Sacramento. The majority are Meleagris gallopavo merriami and Meleagris gallopavo intermedia, or hybrids of the two. Shasta and Tehama counties have the largest turkey populations in Northern California.
“The California Fish and Game Commission released thousands of farm-raised turkeys into California between 1908 and 1951,” says Meshriy.
Those farm-comfortable birds didn’t have much staying power in the wild, however. It wasn’t until state officials began trapping wild turkeys from places like Texas, and letting them loose, that turkeys took off. Thousands were released in more than 200 locations between 1959 and 1999.
“It is descendents of these wild, introduced turkeys that we see in California today,” Meshriy says.
But the state’s turkey history actually began thousands of years prior to the introduction program. A version of today’s turkey existed in prehistoric times.
“Turkeys were roaming in California landscapes up until approximately 10,000 years ago,” Meshriy notes.
Fossilized remains of the Meleagris californica have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California. The native California turkey had a short, wide beak. Fossilized turkey remains also were discovered in Shasta County, although it is not clear it was Meleagris californica, Meshriy says.
The earliest turkeys became extinct as the climate changed. California was sans turkeys for thousands of years until the state introduction program. The birds were brought in as game animals.
“Turkeys were nearly hunted to extinction in North America, but efforts in the early 1900s to restore and maintain wild populations have resulted in healthy populations of turkeys across North American today,” Meshriy says.
Turkey populations in California expanded rapidly in the 1980s and ’90s, Meshriy says, and continue to increase in areas with available habitat.
That’s good news for hunters and those who enjoy viewing or photographing wild turkeys. But concerns have been raised about the impact of the introduced birds on native flora and fauna. Turkeys also snack on vegetable gardens, leave droppings on patios, stir things up with their dust baths and launch and land, with loud thuds, on rooftops.
“Turkeys are smart and can quickly become habituated to human subsidies, whether intended or not,” Meshriy warns. “You should not feed turkeys and should remove any attractants – pet food, bird feeders, trash – if you notice it is affecting the behavior of the wild birds.”
Turkeys are nomadic, wandering daily for food and water. They might stay within a five-mile area, but can go 15 to 20 miles, according to Meshriy. Flocks change in size and membership seasonally. For half of the year, males and females with broods hang out separately. There’s a pecking order in flocks. Dominance is established by size and age.
Turkeys don’t have much of a reputation for brainpower. Meshriy thinks that’s because people often see them at times of the year when they are under the influence of hormones. They might witness a tom attacking his reflection on a shiny car door, or a similar scene.
“While this may seem like a lack of intelligence or poor-decision making to us, it is this drive to reproduce and adapt that helps make turkeys so successful,” Meshriy says.
Here are a few additional turkey tidbits offered by Meshriy:
• Turkeys are curious and use full-color vision to investigate new things with great interest.
• They can run up to 25 miles per hour and fly up to 55 miles per hour.
• Males gobble. Hens make yelping sounds. But not always. It is not uncommon to hear a gobbling hen or yelping tom.
• The color of a turkey’s head and wattle can change to red, white or blue, indicating changes in mood. Color change results from flushing or constriction of blood vessels and light scattering on collagen tissue. Red means the bird is excited, alarmed or angry. White signals the turkey is not feeling particularly proud. Red to blue and back again might indicate alternating feelings of dominance and apprehension.