Thankful for the wild turkey
Whether you're watching or hunting Utah's turkeys, the experience fulfills a primitive desire to be a part of the outdoors
Dean Mitchell is the Conservation Outreach Section chief for the DWR. He oversees the agency’s Communication, Education, Volunteer and Watchable Wildlife programs.
THANKSGIVING is only a few days away. As with most people this time of year, the word “turkey” is on my mind. Oh, I’m not thinking about one of those Butterball or Norbest turkeys — you know, the ones that are all white and weigh in at 20-30 pounds — I’m thinking about the wild turkey: dark, sleek, fast afoot and becoming more common on Utah’s landscape.
The spring wild turkey hunt in Utah is months away, but December is the time to apply for an early limited-entry season permit. Drawing one of these permits allows you to be the first afield in the spring.
Unlike many other states, Utah doesn’t currently offer a fall turkey season; we’re still busy building our turkey populations.
Once rare, wild turkeys are now a familiar sight throughout Utah. Wild turkeys are not known to have existed in the state during early white settlement. However, historical and archeological evidence (pictographs, petroglyphs, turkey feather blankets, turkey bones) clearly indicates that wild turkeys, probably the Merriam’s subspecies, co-existed with Native Americans in Utah.
As a result of aggressive transplant efforts, two subspecies of the wild turkey are now found in Utah. The Merriam’s turkey is a mountain bird found in mature stands of ponderosa pine mixed with aspen, grassy meadows and oak brush grading into pinyon pine and juniper. The Rio Grande turkey is found in cottonwood river bottoms often associated with oak brush. Unlike the Merriam’s subspecies, the Rio does not typically migrate up and down the mountain in response to seasonal weather changes.
The Merriam’s and Rio Grande turkeys are both very similar in appearance, but their differences in habitat requirements distinguish the two birds.
The wild turkey is the largest of Utah’s upland game birds and is considered by many as the “trophy” species of upland game. Adult male turkeys are called toms or gobblers and adult female turkeys are called hens. One-year-old male turkeys are called jakes and one-year-old female turkeys are called jennies. Chicks are called poults.
The wild turkey is really something to look at. As the old saying goes, it has a face that only a mother could love. The wild turkey’s face is covered with fleshy bumps called caruncles. There’s a flap of skin under its chin called a dewlap. Next time you see a wild turkey, look for the fleshy projection on top of its bill; that’s called a snood.
Two characteristics that hunters look for in a trophy turkey are the length of the spurs on the back of the legs on the male turkey (female turkeys don’t have spurs), and the length of the beard…a collection of hair-like feathers that grows from the breast of the male and some female wild turkeys.
Breast feathers of the male are tipped with black while those of the female are tipped with white or buff. During the spring breeding season, the gobbler is more colorful than the hen. Depending on his mood, the skin on a gobbler’s head can be white, red or blue.
Hunting the wild turkey in the spring is one of my treasured rituals. It’s the time of the year when I’ve stowed my ice fishing gear and I’m waiting for the lakes and reservoirs to open. Turkey hunting cures cabin fever. It’s rejuvenating to be in the spring woods watching the snow melt and succulent, green plant shoots popping from the soil as a result of warming temperatures.
Ruffed grouse are busy drumming. Listen for what sounds like an old one-cylinder motor “putt-putting” in the woods. Sandhill cranes, with their prehistoric call and dark-eyed juncos, are back from their southern wintering grounds.
Utah’s spring turkey woods are usually full of ragged-looking elk, and deer and moose losing their winter coats and following the snow line back to their summer ranges.
The excited gobble from a spring tom is a sound that I crave each year. And whether I’m watching the wild turkey or hunting it, the experience fulfills some primitive yearning to be a part of the outdoors.
As you finish your Thanksgiving meal this year, think about the “other” turkey and how fun it might be to go see or hunt them in the wilds of Utah!