The story of America’s largest and rarest turkey subspecies
The Gould’s turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) is one of the few wild turkey subspecies that survive in the arid regions of the south-central United States and Mexico. Although there are some limited hunting opportunities in Arizona and New Mexico, you’ll likely have to head south of the border to pursue one. Here is what you need to know about our largest and rarest turkey subspecies.
Description and life history of the Gould’s wild turkey
The Gould’s turkey subspecies is similar in weight to the Eastern wild turkey, with males weighing 18 to 30 pounds and females weighing 8 to 12 pounds on average (NWTF 2018). However, they generally are larger in size with longer legs, larger feet, and larger tail feathers than any other subspecies (Kennamer 2009). Their feathers resemble the Merriam’s turkey, but have metallic copper, greenish-gold, and bluish-green reflections instead. Differing from the Merriam’s turkey, the rump feathers and tail fan tips on Gould’s are white instead of creamy or buff-colored (Kennamer 2009). Hens have duller feathers to hide well on a nest, and the breast feathers are buff to brown with a slightly purple reflection. The Gould’s turkey is thought to have moderate length beards and spurs compared to all the turkey subspecies (NWTF 2018). The colors of male and female heads are similar to Easterns, with males having a red and blue colored head and females having bluish-gray heads with more feathers present.
The breeding season occurs in the spring and is usually the most concentrated in April through June (NMDGF 2017; Kennamer 2009). It is believed that the Gould’s turkey has a lower frequency gobble than the Merriam’s or Rio Grande subspecies (Kennamer 2009). Most courtship displays and breeding occur in the morning hours, while afternoons are spent foraging. After mating, a hen scratches a nest into the ground, usually located on a steep slope at the base of a tree or other obstruction in heavy cover (NMDGF 2017). Anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs (usually 10 to 12) are laid in the ground nest and incubated for approximately 28 days (NMDGF 2017; Kennamer 2009). Hens normally leave the nest in the morning to feed briefly, but otherwise incubate the eggs steadily until the chicks hatch.
Afterword, the poults (called a brood) and the hen forage together in riparian areas and forest openings where insect life is abundant. The poults feed heavily on invertebrates (e.g., insects and spiders) as they are rich in protein (NatureServe 2018). Adult birds primarily forage on seeds, nuts, fruits, tubers, and leaves. In the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico, the most utilized food items for Gould’s turkey include juniper, piñon pine, oaks, manzanita, grape, and various grasses or forbs, with fruits and grasses being the most preferred items throughout the year (NMDGF 2017). Typical predators of the Gould’s turkey in Arizona and New Mexico include bobcat, mountain lion, coatimundi, black bear, coyote, and grey fox (NMDGF 2017).
Range and habitat of the Gould’s wild turkey
Like the Merriam’s turkey, the Gould’s turkey prefers mountain habitats, which are often quite dry and rugged. In the U.S., Gould’s turkeys are found in the Animas and San Luis mountains of New Mexico and in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona (Kennamer 2009). Gould’s typically occupy mountain ranges with elevations between 4,500 and 6,500 feet above sea level in the U.S. and elevations above 9,800 feet in Mexico (Kennamer 2009).
Gould’s turkey habitat is often located in rugged terrain with steep and rocky canyons (Kennamer 2009). Similar to Merriam’s turkeys, mixed pine and oak (e.g., evergreen oak, juniper, piñon pine, and Chihuahuan pine) forested canyons and slopes are often used, as well as open woodland/savanna habitats and riparian areas dominated by cottonwood and sycamore trees (NMDGF 2017). Riparian areas provide water and tall trees for roosting, while the nearby oaks provide hard mast (acorns) in the fall.
Conservation issues with the Gould’s wild turkey
The Gould’s turkey population is very limited within the United States. Hunting by early settlers and miners between the Civil War and World War I drastically reduced populations by the time of the first legal hunting season in 1929 (AGFD 2018). The Gould’s turkey is threatened in New Mexico, and the primary threats and limiting factors there include habitat destruction (due to wildfires, overgrazing by livestock, or harvest of fuelwood and beargrass), a lack of reliable water sources, genetic issues (e.g., inbreeding, hybridization with non-native turkeys, etc.), or poaching (NMDGF 2017). It is likely that these same risks threaten populations in Arizona and Mexico.
Hunting opportunities for the Gould’s wild turkey
The Gould’s turkey historically occurred throughout Arizona and New Mexico as they currently do. However, their range has been drastically reduced to the southeast and southwest corners, respectively, of these two states. If you want to hunt these birds in the U.S., you need to be in one of these areas.
In Arizona, fewer than 100 Gould’s permits are sold for turkey hunting. In New Mexico (where the Gould’s turkey is threatened), the state has determined that only a very limited hunt can occur and only two permits are sold. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) sell one Gould’s turkey enhancement permit at an auction and raffle the second permit off. The funds raised from these two enhancement permits are utilized solely for the management of the Gould’s subspecies. While the New Mexico turkey season dates are shown in the table below, any consecutive 30 day period from April 15 to May 10 in 2021 can be authorized for the Gould’s turkey hunt.
Spring 2021 Gould’s turkey seasons
(Last updated February 8th, 2021)
|Arizona**||General||April 30-May 6 and May 7-27, 2021*||1 bearded|
|Archery||April 23-29, April 30 – May 6, May 7-27, and May 14-27, 2021*|
|New Mexico**||General||Apr. 15-May 10, 2021*||1 bearded|
* Varies by unit click on state for details
** Some or all permits maybe subject to drawing
Similar to Merriam’s, start your hunt by looking for mature oak and pine trees along steep slopes and canyons. Then locate open meadows and water sources nearby, which will all be attractive to the turkeys as strutting and roosting areas. Set up quietly along one of the meadows or water sources early in the morning and start calling towards the trees. With a little luck, you can harvest one of these rare turkeys.
Remember that your hunting license dollars support the continued management and habitat work that is so critical to saving the Gould’s subspecies here in our country. Hunting is conservation at work.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.