BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: The wild turkey is an impressive and uniquely North American species of bird
Native to this continent, wild turkeys are found throughout all states except Alaska. Counting the Rio Grande turkey, there are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America.
While turkey hunting this spring, the forests and fields were full of the sounds of birdlife.
Wild turkeys were gobbling and clucking, which was a good thing, but so, too, were the sights and sounds of other birds. Including waterfowl such as Canada geese, mallards, trumpeter swans, and wood ducks, in addition to other species like sandhill crane, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, bald eagle, northern harrier, black-billed magpie, American crow and common raven.
The wild turkey is one of the most impressive and uniquely North American species of birds I know. Native to this continent, wild turkeys are found throughout all states except Alaska. In the 1960s, the subspecies Rio Grande turkey from Texas were translocated to all six Hawaiian Islands and released. By some estimates, nearly 20,000 Rio Grande turkeys flourish there today.
Male turkeys, also called toms or gobblers (juveniles are jakes), possess an array of interesting physical features. The displaying and courting male puffs his feathers out, extends his wings from the sides of his body, and fans his tail.
Bony spikes called spurs grow out of the backs of the lower legs. And a course patch of dark hair called a beard protrudes from their chest. Other features include a flap of skin, or a wattle, that grows underneath the chin; caruncles, which are fleshy bumps throughout the head and throat area; and a flap of skin that hangs from the beak called a snood.
Counting the Rio Grande turkey, there are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America. These five subspecies include the wild turkey subspecies living here in Minnesota: the Eastern wild turkey.
Eastern wild turkeys are found in most states east of the Missouri River, including Canadian provinces. This is the most abundant wild turkey of them all and is found in 38 states and numerous provinces. Their estimated population is 5.3 million birds.
Eastern wild turkeys can get big, too. Up to 30 pounds is not unheard of, though mature males typically weigh around 20 to 25 pounds. Of the five subspecies, male Easterns have the loudest gobble, the longest beards, the second-longest spurs, and are the largest in body size. The beautiful tail fans of a displaying male are copper to bronze in color. Easterns are also among the darkest colored of the five subspecies.
Nearly as widely distributed as Easterns is the subspecies Merriam’s. These turkeys inhabit most states west of the Missouri River as well as in Rocky Mountain states. Though far less abundant than Eastern wild turkeys, Merriam’s are limited in abundance by less suitable habitat and possibly more predators.
Merriam’s, conversely, have the shortest beards and spurs of all the subspecies, in addition to the quietest gobble. Merriam’s also have one of the most lightly colored tail fans. Their beautiful buff-colored fans are diagnostic of the subspecies.
Rio Grande turkey range is primarily Kansas to Texas and California to Washington. Translocated birds are also found in North Dakota and Hawaii. A sort of combination of characteristics common to Eastern and Merriam’s, Rio Grande wild turkeys have medium-sized beards and spurs. Tail fans are tan in color.
The other two subspecies of wild turkey are the Gould’s and Osceola subspecies. The former is found only in Arizona and New Mexico, but also ranges from Mexico to Central America, too. Interestingly, the Gould’s wild turkey have the longest legs and the largest feet of any of the five subspecies. Having lightly colored fans, the tips of their tail feathers are white.
Osceola wild turkeys, the least abundant of the five subspecies, can only be found in Florida. Similarly colored as Easterns are, Osceola turkeys have the longest spurs. While a 1.5-inch spur on most subspecies is considered long, mature male Osceola spurs can grow over two inches long.
Wild turkeys are truly fascinating birds. Though some people believe that this relative newcomer to northern Minnesota is a threat to ruffed grouse populations, none of these rumors have a shred of truth.
Wild turkeys, native to North America, numbering well over 7 million strong, have existed and flourished for a very long time, side-by-side, with many other native species of wildlife, including us, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.