The early morning dew left streaks on my boot as I rolled over on my stomach and peaked over the hill. A mature tom was strutting in the oak flat with his harem of females. His gobble struck deep in my chest as I reached for my gun, resting it on the ridge of the hill. Bead on his head, I waited for a female to clear my line of fire. When she finally did, I pulled the trigger and ran out to grab my first Eastern.
There are five different subspecies of turkey in North America, each characterized by their geographic distribution and morphological features.
The Eastern turkey, like the one I shot and native to New Jersey and all states east of the Mississippi, is characterized by its dark appearance and likeness for wooded habitats. Like most woodland subspecies of wild game, these birds are extremely weary and honed into their environment, keyed in on predation and experts at escape.
Just west of the Mississippi, the Rio Grande turkey reigns dominant. They can be found in the deserts of Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, and have even set up shop in Colorado, Oregon, and Utah.
Their distribution runs close to their close cousin the Merriam’s wild turkey, also known as the Rocky Mountains wild turkey. This subspecies prefers mountainous regions of the west in elevations of 3,500 to 10,000 feet, and prefer ponderosa pine habitats. Contrary to popular belief, turkeys do not drown themselves in the rain. The Merriam’s turkey’s range receives as much as 15-23 inches of rain per year.
To the south, also preferring mountainous terrain, is the Gould’s turkey. The largest body frame of the five subspecies, the Gould’s turkeys have white tips on their tail feathers and range into northwestern Mexico.
The most coveted and cryptic of wild turkey species is the Osceola turkey. They are noted for their difficulty to hunt and small size. They border the Eastern wild turkey range and can only be found in the Florida peninsula. Biologist recognize their range as being defined by county lines rather than geographic barriers. This is largely for management purposes but leads to interesting inconsistencies. North of Duval, Clay, Bradford, Union, Alachua, Gilchrist, and Dixie counties, there are Eastern turkeys. South of the northern border of these counties, the turkeys are recognized as being Osceola’s. In a day of a turkey’s life, he can go from being an Eastern turkey to an Osceola just by crossing a county line.
To hunt each of these five species successfully is called a Royal Slam. And, luckily for us hunters, there are spring turkey seasons in 49 states barring Alaska, a luxury much of us take for granted. Not so long ago, a Royal slam wasn’t even possible. Not so long ago, you were a lucky man to see a turkey.
Prior to European contact in the 1500’s, North America boasted a wild turkey population of roughly 10 million. Turkeys were a top priority game species for Native Americans who used their feathers for ceremonial purposes arrow fletchings, as well as for meat, clothing, and tools. Europeans stopped testing the waters in 1620, when they sent over the Mayflower to finally set up shop in the New World. When the new immigrants of Massachusetts crossed into the oak and pine forests that blanketed the region, turkey abounded. Although there is no solid evidence to suggest wild turkey landed on the first Thanksgiving Day menu, it is likely that they were a prioritized game species second only to whitetail deer.
The east coast suffered dramatic changes to its landscape over the next two centuries. Covered in cedars, pines, and oaks, much of the eastern forest was clear-cut for lumber and in its place, farms were established to feed the growing colonies. Where the forest wasn’t clear-cut, market hunters and recreational hunters alike led unregulated pursuits on turkeys. It is recorded that some hunters bagged as much as 100 a day, using tactics such as laying down a long line of corn and waiting for the turkeys to feed. When their heads were all in line, a hunter could shoot and bag dozens of birds at a time.
The synergy between deforestation and unregulated hunting led to the wild turkey’s demise. Easterns were the first to go, and thought to be largely extirpated by the 1850’s. 1813 marked the loss of Connecticut’s wild turkeys and Vermont followed suit in 1842. Even earlier, by the 1930’s, the wild turkey population in America, once 10 million strong, was reduced to less than 30,000 birds.
Coinciding with the turkey population crash, America was fighting the Great Depression. The Depression lasted until about 1939 and forced rural Americans out of their homes in search of jobs, many leaving behind vast stretches of farmland. The succession of shrubs and grasses on these abandoned farms sparked a revival in turkey habitat on the American landscaping, boosting early attempts at rebounding the species.
Prior to 1950, concerned sportsman and state agencies alike worked to revive turkey populations by introducing farm-raised birds into suitable habitat. States throughout the east funded game farms to rear wild turkeys and, when they came of age, they were released into the wild. The programs were largely unsuccessful, however. The farm-raised birds lacked the basic survival behaviors that would have been learned by their mothers in the wild, and high mortality led to a discontinuation of these programs by the 50’s and 60’s.
Around this time, wildlife biologists worked on other methods of wild turkey reintroduction including live-capture and translocation of wild species. Isolated pockets of wild eastern turkeys in inaccessible terrain were tapped with rocket propelled nets and trapping systems, and the captured birds. This new method proved successful and, by 1971, the population had rebounded 1.4 million.
In 1973 the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) was formed to serve as a platform for sportsmen and concerned conservationists alike to work together for the propagation of viable turkey populations. The NWTF promoted science based management and created a team of wildlife biologists who performed research on wild turkey habitat, brood survival, population dynamics, and natural history to create the foundations of the restoration efforts and hunting regulations we see today.
Thanks to the effort of these sportsman and wildlife agencies, America now boasts a population of 7 million wild turkeys found in every state but Alaska, each with a population large enough to sustain a spring turkey season. A lot of sportsmen like to spend their times talking about the good ol days of hunting, when the numbers were larger and greater, more abundant and more successful. Next time someone uses this argument about wild turkeys, remind them of the past.
We’re in the golden age of wild turkey, and when we pull the trigger this season, we have 200 years’ worth of conservation efforts to thank.
For further reading on wild turkey history: