Wild Turkeys  from New Mexico Game and Fish and Ben Hanson

  Ben Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey the national bird, and even today some people wish he had succeeded. Stately birds in the forest, and Thanksgiving Day symbols at the home, wild turkeys are the largest game birds in America. They are found in all mountainous areas of New Mexico, and their recorded history here goes back to the 1540 expedition of Coronado.

   Before that, turkeys were important to Native Americans. They were hunted, and even domesticated, in the East and Southwest. Turkey bones 15,000 years old and more have been found in caves and stream beds used by Native Americans. Turkeys were eaten and also supplied feathers for clothing and arrow fetching. Bones became awls, beads and spoons. When miners and settlers came into New Mexico in the 1800s, they started to kill turkeys effectively. Wagonloads were hauled to market. Turkeys were eliminated from many mountain ranges, and their populations depleted in other areas. The ebb was around 1924, and efforts of the Department of Game and Fish began to turn the numbers around by 1930. Birds were live-trapped and moved to other areas. All suitable mountain ranges now contain wild turkeys.

   There are three subspecies of wild turkeys in the state. The Merriam's turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) has the widest distribution by far, and is the most numerous, being found in many mountain areas. The Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia) can be found along watercourses in northeastern New Mexico. In the extreme southwestern corner of the state, the Mexican or Gould's turkey (M. g. mexicana) is found. It is considered endangered here and may not be hunted, though larger populations are found in Mexico.

   Adult toms weigh close to 16 pounds on the average, and hens seldom exceed 12 pounds. Tail coloration distinguishes the three subspecies. The Merriam's has an ashy-white tail band, the Rio Grande a rich chocolate band, and the Mexican a pure white band. Turkeys have a brilliant bronze sheen on the breast and neck, while their backs are a velvety black. Wing feathers have white and brown bars. Females are generally lighter than males.

   In the spring mating season, the colors and behavior of the toms are spectacular. A male's head and upper neck are bare of feathers. The loose folds of skin (or wattles) become brilliantly colored from deep red to bright blue. When a tom displays for females, he spreads his tail feathers in an upright fan, droops his wingtips to the ground, and performs a strutting dance, pausing for deep-throated gobbling. Toms gobble to establish territories and attract as many females as they can. The male has a beard-hairlike feathers that hang from the breast. Beards may reach 10 inches in length. Hens occasionally have beards too.

   Turkeys may live beyond five years in the wild, but average life expectancy is closer to two years, and life in the wild takes its toll on young turkeys (poults). After mating in March and April, females make their nests, usually shallow depressions in pine needles and grass. Hens lay from nine to 12 eggs over a period of two to three weeks. The hen does not protect the eggs during this time, and freezing weather in late spring can kill many of the eggs.

   Nests are usually at the base of a tree and have deadfall or blown-down wood. There is usually a long, narrow opening where hens lead poults after they hatch. Here they find insects that comprise their diet for the first few months. These openings are called brood lanes. The average distance from water to a nest is a third of a mile. About 35 percent of mature hens are successful in producing eggs, research shows.

   After an incubation of about 28 days, poults hatch and are soon able to forage for food with their mother. She often joins up with two or three other hens, and they raise their families together. Young turkeys grow rapidly, and as soon as they are able, they roost in trees at night, where they are much safer than on the ground. Roost trees, usually ponderosa pines, are tall and have horizontal branches. They are used over and over, and may sometimes be recognized by accumulated droppings. By late September, poults are nearly the size of hens. Large groups of hens and poults stay together in the winter, and young birds become completely independent only when hens leave them to start the breeding cycle again.

   Turkeys eat a variety of foods, including pine and pinon nuts and other mast in the winter, and berries, grass, insects and fruits when available. Green vegetation is important in their diet in the spring. Juniper berries are normally available to turkeys, as is tall grass, sticking above the snow, to help carry turkeys through the winter. The birds move to lower elevations to escape severe winter in higher elevations.

   Recent field research by the Department of Game and Fish shows that hens, wearing small transmitters and tracked by telemetry, have migrated distances of 25 miles or more in a year. Spring movements are more predictable than fall movements, and hens tend to occupy the same nesting and brooding area. Predators take a large toll, with bobcats and coyotes being the most efficient in late winter and early spring. Other predators include skunks, bears and raccoons. Poults are endangered by hawks and owls for the first few weeks. At 12 to 15 days old, they also can die of overexposure if they are wet and cold. Feathers later develop to lessen this danger. About 40 percent of mature hens are lost before the first breeding season, research shows.

   Most hens begin incubating their eggs by May 20, and there is no biological need for large numbers of males beyond late April. The state sells separate licenses for wild turkey hunting, and in recent years has had both spring and fall seasons. The spring season is in late April and early May, and a second turkey may be taken in some areas. There is also a special hunt with shotguns only in the fall.

   In a recent year, hunters killed 2,058 turkeys in the spring season and 238 in the fall. Success rates were 32 percent in the spring and 21 percent in the fall. Research indicates that legal hunter's take about 16 percent of the population, and poachers take about 10 percent. Numbers from year to year can vary, but there have been good numbers of turkeys statewide for many seasons.

   Turkey calling is an ancient art, and modern hunters use an endless variety of calls to entice toms to within shooting range. The yelp and the cluck are basic calls. Advanced calls, to help bag smart old birds, include the cackle, purr, kee-kee-run and gobble. Most turkeys are called in with only a few discreet clucks or yelps.

   Hunters use camouflage clothing, face nets or face paint, and often have a camouflage pattern on their weapons also. Turkeys have very keen eyesight, and the hunter is usually sitting against a tree in fairly open wooded country. Scouting the hunt area in advance is always an excellent tactic, searching for tracks, droppings or gobbles. Getting a tom to gobble from the roost is a hunter's best bet for early-morning success. The hunter then works as close to the bird as possible without spooking him.

   Hunters and photographers alike can learn more about wild turkeys by studying their habits and learning to imitate their calls. Turkey management has benefited from transplanting birds and from knowing what it takes for birds to grow in the wild. Much of the success is attributable to federal aid funds under the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937.