Let’s Talk Texas Turkeys
Eileen Berger Indian Trail Master Naturalist
The one constant on most Texans’ Christmas holiday tables is the turkey. That will usually be one from the local supermarket, lovingly prepared by Mom or Grandma. Some citizens of our great state may be having a wild turkey harvested by an intrepid hunter in the family. The turkey in the store is a domesticated version of the native wild turkey found first by the Spanish explorer Cortez who encountered them in Mexico in 1519. The explorer Vasco de Gama later introduced them into Europe. Our forefathers the Pilgrims brought domesticated turkeys with them to America in the 1600’s. So, the turkey made a round trip.
Our wild turkey(Meleagris gallopavo) is a conservation success story. In the late 1800’s, hunting had almost taken all the turkeys from Texas. In an effort to conserve the remaining birds, in 1903 a bag limit of 25 per day during a five month season was established. This did little to help the situation. In 1919 the legislature created a bag limit of three bearded gobblers per season. This and the increased protection of forward-thinking landowners helped the most. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also trapped Rio Grande turkeys and moved them to areas of their former range to help restock and restore.
Texas actually has three subspecies of turkey, including Eastern, Rio Grande, and Merriam. The most widespread of these is the Rio Grande. All wild turkeys need substantial amounts of water and therefore need to live near rivers and lakes. While I was visiting Del Rio, Texas in June I was privileged to see a flock of turkeys at Lake Amistad. It was composed of several hens, the poults, and one magnificent gobbler. They appeared to be eating grasshoppers and other insects as they slowly made their way across the grassy meadow.
Turkeys need certain habitat to be successful in rearing young. They need knee-high grass for nesting cover as they are ground nesters. They need a good supply of water fairly close, as the hen uses water to help keep the eggs from becoming too hot. They need a ready supply of food, including pecans and acorns from mature trees, as well as berries and seeds. The young eat insects and snails because of the high protein content. They all eat green forage in the winter including wheat, oats and clovers as available. Turkeys therefore require thousands of acres of the right kind of habitat, as well as rainfall at the right time of year, in order to flourish.
Mature gobblers can range from 16 to 18 pounds for the Rio Grande turkey, to between 19 to 21 pounds for the Eastern and Merriam. The gobbler has black-tipped breast feathers, and a pink or red snood which grows from between its eyes. The hen has buff-tipped breast feathers and is a drab brown. They usually do not have a snood. Hens are about half the size of the gobbler. Unlike a chicken, turkeys do not have wattles, the paired appendages of the comb that hang down from either side of the bill. They do, however, have fleshy growths at the base of the throat called caruncles. Male turkeys also have spurs on the back of the leg which can grow to be almost two inches long.
Hens will lay from 9 to 11 eggs and incubate the eggs for 28 days. Probably no more than 2 to 3 of the poults may reach maturity due to predation. Poults can fly well after about two weeks and will begin to roost in trees. Landowners wanting to encourage turkey success on their property use controlled burns, careful rotation of livestock to maintain adequate grasses, and population control of deer and exotic species. No resource is so important to the success of turkeys like a ready supply of water. Supplemental feeding should be used only in extreme cases.