Pursuing the beautiful mountain bird — the Merriam’s Wild Turkey.
Just as the Eastern wild turkey is known for eastern forests and the Midwest, the Merriam’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is best known for the mountainous regions of our Western states at higher elevations. This mountain turkey is highly sought for its uniquely-colored feathers.
Description and Life History of the Merriam’s wild turkey
The Merriam’s wild turkey subspecies is similar in size and weight to the Eastern wild turkey. Males weigh 18 to 30 pounds and females weigh 8 to 12 pounds on average (NWTF 2018). Feathers on the male are darker than an Eastern turkey and contain iridescent blue, purple, and bronze shades (Beauty of Birds 2018). In addition, the rump feathers and tail fan tips are pinkish white or buff-colored, which really stand out in dark environments. As with the Eastern turkey, females have dull feathers which enable them to hide well in the underbrush or on a nest. The breast feathers of the female are buff to brown while her wings are still quite white. The Merriam’s turkey is said to have the shortest beard and spurs of all the turkey subspecies (NWTF 2018). The colors of male and female heads are similar to Eastern turkeys, with males having a red and blue colored head and females having bluish-gray heads with more feathers present.
Breeding season usually starts in March and extends until June (Arizona Game and Fish Department 2018). Males court hens by strutting with their feathers fluffed out and tail fans displayed. They will also gobble in response to a hen’s calls in the spring, though the Merriam’s turkey is thought to be one of the most timid and quiet gobblers (NWTF 2018). A female chooses a mate by lying down in front of a male. Usually, 8 to 12 eggs are laid in a ground nest and then incubated for approximately 28 days (Arizona Game and Fish Department 2018). The poults are fairly self-sufficient upon hatching.
Poults feed heavily on protein-rich invertebrates (e.g., insects and spiders) during their first summer (NatureServe 2018). They transition to an adult diet of seeds, nuts, fruits (e.g., snowberry, bearberry, hawthorn, serviceberry, chokecherry, and rose hips), tubers, leaves, ponderosa pine nuts and waste grain as the winter approaches (Beauty of Birds 2018).
Turkeys are diurnal, which means they are active during the day. In the evening, they fly up into open-limbed mature trees to roost for the night. In a study by Mark Rumble (1992) in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it was shown that Merriam’s turkeys typically selected roost sites on moderately steep slopes (20 to 30%) and in trees with an even, open-branched structure. They will fly down from their roosts in the early morning and spend the day foraging on the ground.
Range and Habitat of the Merriam’s wild turkey
The Merriam’s wild turkey primarily occupies the Rocky Mountains, nearby prairie states and the high mesas of the Southwest. Their central range includes Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado (Beauty of Birds 2018). However, they do occur in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, and parts of Nebraska, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, and California, where they have been introduced.
Ponderosa pine communities seem to be important for Merriam’s turkeys in mountainous areas (New Mexico Game and Fish 2018; Beauty of Birds 2018). They typically stick to forested areas and foothills during the winter (provided the snow isn’t too deep) where they can find some wooded protection. During the summer they venture out into the open grasslands and cottonwood river valleys. Pinyon pine, juniper and oak forests may also represent an important habitat type for Merriam’s turkeys, as they provide food and cover (Arizona Game and Fish Department 2018). Dense-growing shrubs at higher elevations may be used by hens for nesting cover (Arizona Game and Fish Department 2018).
Conservation Issues of the Merriam’s wild turkey
While the Merriam’s turkey is native to three or four states, it was successfully introduced in the 1950’s or 1960’s to the remaining states in the table below. The subspecies is dependent on older ponderosa pine communities throughout much of its range. Rumble (1992) suggested that aggressive timber cutting of older forest communities could negatively affect Merriam’s turkey roost preference. It’s likely that development and changes in land use (i.e., grazing) could also negatively affect populations of this subspecies.
Hunting Opportunities for the Merriam’s wild turkey
Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado represent the best historic native range for the Merriam’s turkey. However, they can also be hunted in the other states mentioned below. As far as finding good Merriam’s turkey habitat, start by looking for ponderosa pine trees along steep slopes and canyons. From there, look for clusters of deciduous trees, meadows and water sources in close proximity. Set up quietly along one of the meadows or water sources early in the morning and start calling towards the trees. Due to the rough terrain, you can often call pretty aggressively to make the sounds carry. With any luck, you might be able to convince a gobbler to come your way.
|Arizona||Spring, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|California||March 31-May 6||3 bearded turkeys|
|Colorado||April 14-May 27||2 bearded turkeys|
|Idaho||Spring, variable units||2 bearded turkeys|
|Nebraska||March-May||1 bearded turkey per permit|
|New Mexico||Spring, variable units||2 bearded turkeys|
|North Dakota||Spring, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|Oregon||April 15-May 31||3 bearded turkeys|
|Utah||Spring, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|Washington||Spring, variable units||License-dependent|
|Wyoming||April 1-May 20||1 bearded turkey|
Arizona Game and Fish Department. 2018. Merriam’s Turkey. Accessed at: http://azgfd.gov/h_f/game_turkey.shtml
Beauty of Birds. 2018. Merriam’s Turkeys. Accessed at: https://www.beautyofbirds.com/merriamswildturkeys.html
NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
New Mexico Game and Fish. 2018. Wild Turkey. Accessed at: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/hunting/information-by-animal/turkey/
NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation). 2018. Learn About the Wild Turkey Subspecies. Accessed at: http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/wild-turkey-subspecies
Rumble, Mark A. 1992. Roosting Habitat of Merriam’s Turkeys in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Journal of Wildlife Management. 56(4): 750-759. Accessed at: https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_1992_rumble_m001.pdf
Last modified: March 11, 2020