Bring in the birds
EAGLE COUNTY – Fifty-three big birds disappeared into the sagebrush-covered hills in a matter of seconds.A two-year effort to transplant wild turkeys into the Eagle Valley culminated last weekend with the release of more than four dozen of the game birds south of Eagle, near the Brush Creek drainage. The turkeys, only too happy to find freedom after being confined in cardboard boxes for 48 hours, quickly flew out of sight. They left behind a dozen grinning people, including wildlife experts and supporters of the local Wild Turkey Federation chapter. Experts hope that within three years the flock will more than double, establishing a stable population of the wild birds in a place where wild turkeys have never lived before.”Wild turkeys are one of our up-and-coming wildlife species. These birds are very popular for wildlife watching and for consumption,” says Craig Wescoatt, district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. If a number of factors work well, including some mild winters, nesting success, and a low mortality rate, the Division of Wildlife could be looking at a limited local turkey hunting season within the next two or three years.”I think it’s cool,” said Travis Baker, 13, one of the volunteers who ventured into the hills to help release the turkeys from their cardboard confines. Travis and his father, Bears, are members of the local Chapter of the National Turkey Federation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for the purpose of proliferating turkey populations. The local chapter of the organization has been active for seven years.Bears Baker currently has a turkey hunt planned out-of-state. Both he and his son would like to hunt turkeys locally at some point in the future, he said. Bears said he continually gets phone calls from people who have encountered some of the wild turkeys that were released on Gypsum Creek two years ago, in a similar effort.
Wild turkeys are known to roam from 20 miles to 30 miles between summer and winter ranges. The Gypsum Creek flock has been spotted at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon, south of the Eagle County Airport and on Brush Creek.Out of the boxGetting the birds to their new habitat involved a couple years of research and some careful last-minute coordination of details. The potential transplant site was originally scouted by former district wildlife manager Bill Heicher. A committee of Division of Wildlife employees and Turkey Federation representatives surveyed the site, and gave it a priority ranking for turkey transplants. Then it was a matter of waiting for the right time of year, and some available turkeys.Those factors all came together over the earlier in the month. Division of Wildlife biologists recently determined that an established turkey flock at DeBeque, about 100 miles west of Eagle, could be thinned. For several days, wildlife experts used corn and oat hay to bait the birds under a drop net. They captured 54 turkeys, one of which died before it could be released. The birds are Miriam’s turkeys, considered the largest game bird in America and native to the Western Slope. Adult birds average about 12 pounds. With strong wings and considerable bulk, they are not easy to handle.Each bird was quickly loaded into a cardboard box, which were hauled to Eagle in a horse trailer.Division of Wildlife biologist Mike Miller was waiting at Eagle to draw blood, and swab the turkey’s throats for cultures that would reveal whether disease was a problem. Identifying tags were fixed to the bird’s wings. Then Miller hustled back to his laboratory in Fort Collins to run the necessary tests.
By early Sunday morning, the veterinarian had given the local group the OK to proceed. The birds, emitting some unhappy noises from inside the cardboard boxes, were transported to the release site by horse trailer, then were moved by snowmobile.Among the local volunteers who turned out to help were the Baker duo, Myron Alt, Gary Martinez, and Shawn and Marci Colby. Marci had won the honor of releasing the first turkey, after her husband bought a shotgun at last month’s Turkey Federation banquet and auction in Eagle.Acting on a signal from Wescoatt, wildlife officers and the volunteers opened the boxes, and released the birds. Without a sound other than the flapping of their wings, the turkeys emerged, then quickly disappeared into surrounding juniper and sagebrush country.Settle downThe flock will get a boost to help the birds adjust to their new habitat. The Turkey Federation covered the cost of a mechanized feeder, which will throw out corn seed at timed intervals. The feeder is enclosed by a high-wire fence, with enough space at the bottom to allow the turkeys access, yet at the same time keeping predators at bay. Volunteers also scattered oat hay around the release site.Wescoatt said it is impossible to say exactly where the birds will settle.”The Gypsum Creek turkeys have certainly pioneered in different places. We put them in good habitat – where they go is their choice,” he observed. Good habitat for turkeys offers seed heads, juniper berries, readily available water, oak brush, and roost trees.
After mating, turkey hens typically produce clutches of up to 13 eggs. Of that number, four or five generally survive. The birds do not specifically compete with other species. Their defense mechanisms include their ability to run and fly with considerable speed. The wary birds also have extremely good hearing and sharp eyesight.Their coloring allows them to blend in well with surrounding vegetation. Just ask any hunter or photographer how hard it is to shoot a turkey.Wildlife experts expect the newly released birds to follow a pattern similar to the behavior exhibited by the nomadic Gypsum Creek flock, released two years ago. At this point, the birds are definitely roaming. Once they settle down, and establish regular winter and summer habitats, a limited hunting season will likely be established. Local birdwatchers should also enjoy this latest addition to the area’s wildlife.”I just think it’s neat that we have more diversity in wildlife,” says Bears Baker, “People who don’t even hunt are interested in the birds. The public seems to be very positive.”Vail, Colorado