California’s Wild Turkeys

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Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Written by EPIC Intern, Clary Greacen Montagne

Brightly colored “Toms” or male turkeys are recognizable by their tail fans and facial wattles. Photo: October Greenfield

The wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is an instantly-recognizable game bird closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. This species has inhabited North America for over 11 million years, since the end of the Pleistocene era, or Ice Age. Wild turkeys have held a cultural role for peoples across the continent far before the first Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys were revered in ancient Aztec civilizations as the manifestation of the trickster god Tezcatlipoca, and their feathers were used for spiritual practices and to adorn jewelry and clothing. The Navajo people may have been among the first people to domesticate wild turkeys, and they remained an important food source across North America throughout history. 

Prior to European colonization of North America, more than ten million wild turkeys roamed the continent, but by the turn of the twentieth century, wild turkeys were at the brink of extinction. Four hundred years of westward expansion and the overhunting, deforestation, and resource extraction that came with it left the population decimated. Today, due to conservation and reintroduction efforts, wild turkeys populations have rebounded to around seven million, and they inhabit about 18% of the state of California. While this successful reintroduction has often been deemed a conservation success story, there is debate over their place in California’s ecosystems. 

National symbol: bald eagle or wild turkey?
In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey as a national symbol, considering the proud, adaptable turkey to be more respectable and noble than the bald eagle, which often steals food or feasts on carrion. In the end, the bald eagle won out. Photo: Chris Stevenson

There are six distinct subspecies of Meleagris gallopovo; the eastern wild turkey, Florida wild turkey, Gould’s wild turkey, Merriam’s wild turkey, Rio Grande turkey, and Mexican wild turkey. The Rio Grande subspecies is the most widespread and is not native to California. Bones from a species of wild turkey once native to California, Meleagris californica, have been found in the La Brea tar pits in southern California, but this species has been extinct for thousands of years. From the 1950s through the end of the twentieth century, the California Fish and Game Commission (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,) imported thousands of non-native Rio Grande wild turkeys to California, releasing them in over 200 locations throughout the state. The turkeys quickly adapted and can now be found living everywhere from oak savannas to the Sacramento suburbs. 

With well-established populations, wild turkeys remain a highly valued upland game bird, but they may be having a negative impact upon California ecosystems. The California State Department of Parks and Recreation in 2007 identified wild turkeys as having the following potential negative impacts: competition with native ground-dwelling bird species, contribution to the spread of the sudden oak death disease, and consumption of endangered reptiles and amphibians. Wild turkeys are generalist feeders, meaning they eat a variety of plants, seeds, and small animals, creating competition for a variety of native species. A short-term study conducted in 2001 at a reserve in Sonoma County showed that turkeys directly caused an increase in soil disturbance and a decrease in terrestrial herbivores, decomposers, and invertebrates fundamental to the ecosystem. More research and long-term studies of wild turkeys in California are needed to fully understand their effects upon the environment, but interest and funding are both scarce. 

For now, population management falls to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which encourages hunting of wild turkeys where safe and legal. Currently, wild turkey populations are not increasing at a rate to elicit major environmental concerns, but overpopulation could become an issue in the future.