Every time Leonard and I go looking for a specific animal or plant we never seem to find the object of our quest. But something interesting always presents itself. The other day we came across a flock of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), an unexpected surprise.
A native of the New World, the wild turkey is the largest game bird in America and an ancestor of the domesticated turkey. Wild turkeys are much slimmer than their heavy-breasted cousins of Thanksgiving fame.
Six subspecies of wild turkeys are recognized in the Americas and are separated by geography, habitat, morphology and plumage. These differences are subtle and most of us are hard pressed to notice the differences in the wild. Four of these subspecies are found north of Mexico.
Fossil evidence shows that there was a prehistoric turkey in Southern California but it did not appear to range into Northern California. Almost indistinguishable from modern Meleagris species, it was called the “California turkey” and disappeared between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. At the time of European settlement wild turkeys were not found in California.
As early as 1877 attempts were made to introduce wild turkeys into California. Introduction programs using farm-raised birds usually failed, so most of California’s wild turkey population derives from captured and relocated wild birds. The subspecies found in the eastern United States (silvestris), the most widespread and best studied subspecies, does not adapt well to Californian habitats. In the lower elevations of California the Rio Grande subspecies (intermedia) has become established while in the higher elevations (including Modoc County where we reside) the Merriam’s wild turkey (merriami) was successfully introduced. Habitat plays an important role in determining which wild turkey subspecies will survive and thrive in a particular geographic area.
It is interesting to read debates in the literature about whether the wild turkey was introduced into California (none here when the settlers arrived) or reintroduced because they are in the Pleistocene fossil record of Southern California.
Wild turkeys prefer open woods bordered by clearings, particularly where oaks are present. They also require a supply of water, but are not adapted for marshy or wet environments. The trees provide food, especially acorns, escape, cover and night roosting sites. Except when they are roosting, wild turkeys are ground dwelling and omnivorous, pecking along the ground for a wide variety of plant and animal foods.
This flock (around thirty birds) of wild turkeys was photographed on Big Valley Mountain (Lassen County CA). Since they were on private property I did not cross the fence to obtain better pictures.