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Vail Daily column: Wild turkeys: Smart, agile and cunning

Doug Dusenberry
Curious Nature
Vail, CO Colorado

We’re all familiar with the majestic bald eagle that adorns our great seal, many of our coins and a host of patriotic images, but did you know that Benjamin Franklin, among others, thought that the wild turkey would have made a better choice as our national symbol?

Before you start wondering about ol’ Ben, remember that he wasn’t talking about the domesticated turkey, the oversized, indiscriminately vocal, flightless cousins that we’re familiar with. He was referring to wild turkeys that are not only capable of flight but are intelligent, agile, resourceful and cunning. These qualities make wild turkeys survivors and one of the most difficult to track game animals in the world.

There are actually several species of wild turkeys that have called this country home since well before we arrived. Two of these species, the Merriam’s and the Rio Grande can be found in Colorado; although the Merriam is much more prevalent, comprising nearly 90 percent of the 25,000 wild turkeys in our state. Named in 1900 after the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, the Merriam prefers our state’s high country and the ponderosa pine, scrub oak and juniper/pinion forests. In our area, you’re most likely to find them in the northern and southwestern parts of Eagle County as well as in Garfield, Montrose, Ouray, Fremont and Custer counties.



Living between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, Merriams literally scratch out a living, usually in the early morning and late afternoon, with powerful legs and beaks, feeding on acorns, nuts, seeds, fruit, buds, insects and even salamanders, snakes and lizards. At night, these turkeys can be found roosting in tall ponderosas.

The Rio Grande Turkey, native to the central plains, was introduced to Colorado much later, around 1980. They’re found primarily in river bottoms of the eastern plains in cottonwood drainages. Although Rio Grandes can be found at altitudes of up to 6,000 feet, they prefer lower elevations than the mountain-dwelling Merriams. Rio Grande Turkeys also have longer legs than Merriams and have tan tail feathers instead of the white rump that distinguishes the Merriam. Wild turkeys are large birds with males topping 4 feet in body length and wingspans edging over 5 feet; weights range from 15-30 pounds.



In the spring, the best time to spot them, males, or toms, sometimes working in groups, gobble, “spit” or “drum” to announce their presence to hens in the area. In addition to making plenty of noise, they’ll strut, fan their tails and drag their wings hoping to mate with as many as six hens in a season. Once they’ve mated, these hens will lay 10-15 eggs in shallow dirt depressions, sometimes in thick vegetation or at the base of ponderosa pines.

The eggs, which were a staple of the Native American diet, will take about a month to hatch and once they’ve hatched, the poults won’t stick around long. Within a day or two they’ll begin to explore the area around the nest and will even begin to feed on their own. Male poults will stay with their mother through fall and females until the next spring before striking out entirely on their own.

As mentioned before, these youngsters are incredibly resourceful. After being hunted nearly to extinction at the turn of the century (down to approximately 30,000), through intelligent management, their numbers have increased to nearly 7 million. Their comeback has been so successful that it is now legal, once again, to hunt them in all 50 states, and biologists have even begun a reintroduction program, using our surplus birds, in Canada.



So this year, when you sit down to enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, take a minute to think about his wild cousin, right here in our state, and how he embodies many of the qualities we admire most in our country: resourcefulness, cunning, alertness and agility. Perhaps there’s still time to mount a write in campaign for making the turkey our national symbol. Well, maybe I’m getting carried away.

Doug Dusenberry is the capital campaign director for Walking Mountains Science Center. He lives in Eagle and enjoys spending time outdoors with his family in search of all types of wildlife. To learn more about the campaign to build an environmental learning center visit http://www.walkingmountains.org.


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