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.
Spring 2021 Merriam Turkey Seasons
(Last updated January 25th, 2021)
|Arizona**||General||April 23-May 20, 2021*||1 bearded|
|Archery||May 7-20, 2021*|
|Youth||April 16-22 & May 7-20, 2021*|
|California||General||March 27-May 2, 2021||1/3 bearded|
|Archery||May 3-16, 2021|
|Youth||March 20-21 & May 3-16, 2021|
|Colorado||General||April 10 – May 31, 2021||2 bearded|
|Archery||April 10–May 31, 2021*|
|Idaho||General||April 15 – May 25, 2021*||2 bearded|
|Youth||April 8-14 & April 8 – May 25, 2021*|
|Montana||General||April 11 – May 17, 2021||1 bearded per permit|
|Nebraska||General||April 18 – May 31, 2021||1 bearded per permit|
|Archery||March 25 – May 31, 2021|
|Youth||April 11 – May 31, 2021|
|New Mexico**||General||Apr. 15-May 10, 2021*||1 to 2 bearded varies by unit|
|Youth (Unit 30)||Apr. 25-26 & May 2-3, 2021|
|North Dakota**||General||April 10 – May 16, 2021||1 bearded|
|Youth||April 10 – May 16, 2021|
|Oregon**||General||April 15 – May 31, 2021||3 bearded|
|Youth||April 10 – 11, 2021||1 bearded|
|South Dakota**||General||Apr 10 – May 31, 2021*||1 bearded|
|Archery||Apr 3 – May 31, 2021|
|Utah**||General||May 3–31, 2021||1 bearded|
|Youth||April 30–May 2, 2021|
|Limited-entry hunt||April 10–April 29, 2021|
|CWMU hunt||April 10–May 31,|
|Washington**||General||Apr. 15-May 31, 2021||3 bearded based on counties|
|Youth||Apr. 3-4, 2021|
|Wyoming||General||April 1-May 31, 2021*||1 bearded|
* Varies by unit click on state for details
** Some or all permits maybe subject to drawing
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.