Talk some turkey this Thanksgiving! November 19, 2017

Posted by GGAS in Birding

By Bob Lewis

Tired of talking politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table? Instead, entertain your family and friends by talking turkey –  specifically, our increasing population of Wild Turkeys in California.

Today, a quarter-million or more Wild Turkeys make their home in the Golden State. Maybe some are spending time in your neighborhood!

But in fact, this specific species—Meleagris gallopavo (comprising four distinct subspecies and their hybrids with the Rio Grande subspecies being the most widespread)—is not considered native to California. Scientific American wrote in a 2016 blog post:

“Some 10,000–12,000 years ago, another smaller species with different morphological characteristics, the extinct Meleagris californica, did exist in southern California as evidenced by the more than 11,100 bones from at least 791 different birds found in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. In fact, the second most abundant fossils in the Tar Pits belong to M.californica. Exactly why M. californica—originally described as a peacock—became extinct thousands of years ago in California is not known but it has been suggested that decreasing rainfall led to a loss of essential vegetation.”

Wild Turkeys by Bob Lewis

The California Fish and Game Commission introduced thousands of farm-raised turkeys into the wild from the early 1900s through the 1950s, as part of a recreational hunting initiative. But the population remained flat, probably because these turkeys lacked the skills to survive in the wild.

From 1959 through 1999, however, the Commission shifted gears and released thousands of live-trapped wild turkeys (mostly of the Rio Grande subspecies from Texas) at over 200 locations. These wild birds had no problem adapting. In fact, their population grew and their territory expanded broadly throughout the state.

Here in the Bay Area, our Oakland Christmas Bird Count recorded its first Wild Turkey in 2002. We treated it as a rare sighting back then!

Wild Turkeys by Bob Lewis

Wild Turkeys by Bob Lewis

Since then the numbers have rapidly increased, and in 2015 we reported 263 Wild Turkeys in the Oakland CBC. (Last year the number dropped slightly.) Although some note the “reintroduction” of the turkey in California has been successful, as the blog above notes, the ancient California Turkey was a different species, now extinct. So it seems more correct to note the “successful” introduction of non-native Wild Turkeys into our state.

Most of the turkeys we see are the Rio Grande subspecies, identified by buff-colored tips to their tails. A second sub-species is Merriam’s Wild Turkey, with white tail tips, mostly found in the Mendocino mountains. Finally, there are some Eastern Wild Turkeys with darker body feathers along the North Coast.

In 2007 the California Department of Parks and Recreation noted that there were concerns about the increasing numbers of Wild Turkeys:

  • They were preying on endangered reptiles and amphibians.
  • They competed with native birds for resources.
  • They contributed to the spread of sudden oak death.

Last year, residents of Davis were calling 911 to report turkey attacks. They finally approved a turkey management plan to keep the population under control. In Lake County, turkeys have wandered into doctor’s waiting rooms.

Wild Turkey family in a Rockridge (Oakland) driveway, by Ilana DeBare

Wild Turkeys at Rockridge BART, by Ilana DeBare

Recreational hunting of turkeys is still allowed in authorized areas of California such as hunt clubs. In fact, hunting season opened this year on November 10. But for those of us who love birds or live in urban areas, the preferred way to hunt turkeys is with a camera.

If you have turkeys in your neighborhood, enjoy them! Maybe you can even spot some during a post-dinner, pre-dessert hike on Thanksgiving Day.

One of the best things about Wild Turkeys in California? These are birds that anyone in your family – without a field guide, without binoculars, even if they leave their eyeglasses next to the pumpkin pie on the dining room table – will be able to spot.


Bob Lewis is co-compiler, with Dave Quady, of Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Oakland Christmas Bird Count. Both beginning and experienced birders are invited to take part in this year’s count, which is on Sunday, December 17, 2017. Prefer to count from the comfort of your home? Sign up as a Feeder Watcher, and report on the birds in your backyard on count day! Registration deadline is December 3. For details and sign-up for the Oakland count or our San Francisco count (on Wednesday, December 27), see http://goldengateaudubon.org/cbc.

Tags: California turkeys, Thanksgiving, Wild Turkey.

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