In the 1950’s wildlife managers, mainly in Eastern states, attempted to re-introduce wild turkeys from pen-raised birds. This was a huge disaster, as pen-raised birds, whether they be pheasants/quail/chukars, just don’t make it in the wild. The reason was simple. They did not have a mother hen to show them what to eat, how to avoid predators and all the other things a young bird must learn. Evidently, these wildlife manager geniuses failed to read some important history, i.e. Judge Denny’s 1880’s introduction of wild-trapped Chinese ring-necked pheasants to the farmlands of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, south of Portland. It’s a story worth reading about on Google. The rest is history, as every ring-necked pheasant in North America can trace it’s lineage back to those wild-trapped ancestors from southern China.
In the early 1960’s, these same wildlife geniuses thought of the bright idea of wild-trapping adult turkeys just prior to the breeding season, in late winter/early spring. This time the trapping and subsequent introduction in suitable vacant habitat in Eastern US states were a huge success. The Eastern wild turkey, almost extinct due to habitat destruction and poaching, responded with outstanding success and was an early example of what can be accomplished when one listens to Mother Nature.
There are six subspecies of wild turkeys native only to North America:
the Eastern (largest native range, from Georgia to New England and west to the Mississippi with all states between);
the Ocella (native only to northern Florida’s Panhandle and into southern Georgia);
the Rio Grande (native to Texas and southern Oklahoma);
the Merriam’s (white band on its tail feathers; native to the Rockies/Intermountain West of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona);
the Gould’s (the heaviest; occurs in northern Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico);
the tropical Ocellated (the most colorful and resembles a peacock; native to Mexico’s Yucatan/northern Guatemala and northern Belize).
Wildlife agencies across the US now routinely trap wild game bird species for distribution within their own state and to send to other states. In the early l960’s Washington received three shipments of Merriam’s, trapped around Alamogordo, New Mexico. They arrived the day after trapping and went to three sites in Washington: the Tucannon in the Blue Mountains, north of Spokane near Colville, and to the Klickitat Wildlife Game Management Area (as it was called back then). For some reason, the Tucannon release was a big disappointment as I guess Mother Nature didn’t like the site. However, the Colville and Klickitat releases were beyond everyone’s expectations. The populations in the Klickitat and Colville exploded (like the 1880’s pheasant introduction in the Willamette Valley). By 1968 the state held its first fall hunting season (either-sex).
In the spring of 1969, the first spring gobbler-only season was held from April 15-30. For those who remember that time, it was an absolute disaster. The day before the season opened, the local wildlife officer and I ran a dawn “transect” of the High Prairie. Just from the road alone, from where the first timber begins, all the way downhill to Lyle, we counted nine different roost sites, as gobblers sound off in their roosting tree. The next morning we ran the High Prairie Road again and counted fifty-two vehicles along the road. Someone (not me, although I was the Game Department’s Public Relations Officer) had put a notice in The Seattle Times that “High Prairie was the hot spot to go.”
Aside from pissing off all the local landowners, the Game Commission authorized (for what reason I have yet to this day wondered) the use of high powered rifles. The cousin of a friend of mine did a seriously stupid thing…he found a hen turkey feather and put it in his hat. Some idiot saw the movement across a hillside and shot the guy dead!
Things improved as they learned from their mistakes. Due to the fact that Washington has nine separate and distinct “habitat/environmental zones,” Washington is one of only two states with thriving populations of three of the six North American wild turkey species – Rio, Merriam’s and Eastern. Rio’s were introduced into the Blue Mountains and they liked their new home better than the Merriam’s had. They also thrive west of Colville where they also interbreed with Merriam’s as a hybrid. Merriam’s also thrive on the east slopes of the Cascades; they inhabit all of timbered Klickitat and Skamania counties, plus have extended their range over the Simcoes into the Yakima Indian Reservation. Not to be outdone, wildlife managers have very successfully introduced Eastern turkeys in virtually all of Southwest Washington—from Chehalis, west to Grays Harbor and south to Vancouver. The state now has a three-bird limit in many areas, especially north of Colville where Merriam’s have become a “pest” in many areas.
The first week of June is the peak hatching period for virtually all game bird species. In mid-summer, if you are sharp-eyed when you drive the High Prairie road, you might spot a flock of dozens or more young turkeys at the edge of a field. It is very common for two or more adult hens to get together to raise their broods. It makes sense, as several adult hens can successfully watch over their communal broods (see image) more efficiently. Summer into early fall you can forget about seeing any mature gobblers, except by accident. The adult toms form “bachelor flocks” and are very secretive to the causal roadside observer. Young toms (born that year) in the fall and winter can be identified by the four central tail feathers being longer than the rest…the following year they will all be the same length.
I’ve spent a lot of thirty-four years hiking virtually all of the High Prairie/Fisher Hills/Goldendale to Bickleton turkey climes. In the next issue I can perhaps give some tips for those interested in bagging a fall turkey for Thanksgiving!