November 18, 2022
The Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, makes up a large portion of the fauna in Little Lake Valley. It is a resident found year-round, sometimes congregating together in flocks of over fifty birds. A few years ago, I counted over two hundred of them making their way into the north end of the valley from Reynolds Highway. Watching them fly into the tall Valley Oaks along Outlet Creek is fantastic because they are such large birds, the males weighing as much as 24 pounds and the females being much smaller at 12 pounds. They are fast flyers and can reach 55 mph but also run up to 25 mph when they need to.
Male Wild Turkeys are the ones with all the color and beautiful full tails. They have no feathers on their sometimes-bright blue heads with a red throat patch and bright red, pink caruncles that are fleshy bumps growing on their head and throat. The male turkey has a distinct feature called a snood which arises from just above the bill. Its total length can vary from just 2 to 6 inches or longer depending on the health of the bird and its mood. Short snoods can stand upright and be pointed like a small horn, while a longer snood will drape down the turkey’s bill, sometimes covering it, or it can flop on one side or another. They grow a modified feather structure called a beard from their breast plumage that can be 15 inches long. The snood and the beard on male turkeys are what the females judge when looking for a mate. The longer more vibrant snoods and beards mean that the male is stronger and healthier which is the attractant for the females. Males use the spurs on their legs to fight rival tom turkeys for the females. Females sometimes grow a small beard about 10% to 20% of the time. The feathers of the male Wild Turkey are iridescent, bronze, red, and gold while the females are more mottled and drabber.
Turkeys are omnivores, ground and shrub foragers mainly eating seeds, nuts, especially acorns in our area, grasses, berries, insects, amphibians, and snakes.
Our California Wild Turkeys are not native to our state and were brought in from the subspecies in the Rio Grande, M.g. intermedia.
The species Meleagris gallopavo evolved over 11 million years ago and is a distant cousin to other game birds such as quail, grouse, and pheasants. They were revered in ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations and were called huexolotlin, thought to be the bird manifestation of the trickster god, Tezcatlipoca. Turkeys were also an essential food source in the Southwest for the Navajos and in the eastern United States for other Indigenous peoples. In 1519 European settlers transported turkeys to Europe to be domesticated. They were being domesticated in North America around the same time. The Pilgrims brought back domesticated European turkeys on the Mayflower in 1620 which then began breeding with the wild native populations. Turkey was actually not on the menu for the first Thanksgiving. During the late 1800s overhunting and deforestation caused the Wild Turkey population to decline drastically and therefore conservation measures were put in place to protect the species and to relocate birds to other promising areas. Then in 1973 the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) was founded to conserve Wild Turkeys and preserve and restore suitable habitats. The Wild Turkey is a conservation success story much like the Bald Eagle. The Wild Turkey population (which has 5 subspecies that have evolved in North America) has grown to more than 7 million across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
This iconic bird has been and continues to be an important food source for humans and predators such as coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and raptors.
Its impact on our ecosystems in Northern California and in Little Lake Valley is still a question, are they a welcome addition or a detrimental one? Their population seems to be expanding as they are quite adaptive to humans. The number of native amphibians and reptiles they consume is research that could add to our understanding in the future. The fact that turkeys also eat a lot of acorns is concerning because acorns are a mainstay food of blacktail deer and other mammals and birds.
The jury is still out on how larger turkey populations affect other native flora and fauna species. More in depth studies that produce quantifiable evidence will be able to give us the answers to these questions and guide management decisions. In the meantime, most of us will have the experience of watching these magnificent Wild Turkeys and some will have hunted them and even cooked one for Thanksgiving.