Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Longspurs, Strutters and Gobblers

(Thanksgiving Day issue...)

Just like Thanksgiving company, Montana is stuffed full of non-native turkeys.

Five subspecies of Wild Turkeys are native to North America, mostly in the east and Midwest, but not anywhere near Montana. One of these subspecies down in old Mexico was the source stock for the modern domestic turkey, perhaps as early as 200 AD. 

In the early 1500's, as early pilgrims were flocking west towards the "New World," domestic turkeys from old Mexico were sailing east to Europe. By the early 1700's, British pilgrims brought the domesticated version back to North America.

While those domestic turkeys arrived in rickety wooden boats, Montana's first Wild Turkeys arrived in rusty pickup trucks. Just like those pilgrims, just enough out-of-state wild birds survived the early years to eventually thrive and populate just about the whole darned place.

MT Fish & Game employees bagging turkeys (c) John Ashley

The first official transplant occurred in 1954, when the Montana Fish & Game released 13 Colorado birds into the Judith Mountains of central Montana. It turned out to be what you might call, "a learning experience." But subsequent transplants in southeastern Montana during 1955 (18 Wyoming birds), 1956 and 1957 (26 more Wyoming birds) were so successful that these 44 birds grew into source populations for all later transplants in Montana. State-managed hunting started in 1958, and soon all suitable habitat in Montana had received transplanted turkeys.

Currently in Montana, there are about 25 flocks in seven different areas, totaling about 85,000 birds; these include about 80,000 Merriam's Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) and 5,000 Eastern Wild Turkeys (M. g. silvastris).

The Montana lifestyle has suited these non-native birds well. In the Audubon Society's annual "Christmas Bird Counts," which take place nation-wide, one of the counts in northwestern Montana led the nation in Wild Turkeys in 14 of the last 36 years.

Wild Turkeys have been introduced into 10 states that, like Montana, are outside of their ancestral range. They now waddle around in 49 states (including Hawaii), three Canadian provinces, and northern Mexico. There was no biological "need" to transplant turkeys into new areas -- it was all conducted strictly for recreational hunting.

As the largest "game" bird in North America, Wild Turkeys tip the scales at 14-22 pounds, with a wingspan of 50-56 inches. Adult males (and about 10% of females) have a "beard" of bristle-like feathers on their lower chest that they never molt. Adult males also sport red throat waddles, and their featherless head changes from white to dark blue to bright red -- depending on their mood. (Hmmm -- some of the same characteristics of a hot-headed bird biologist I once tried to work with.)

Three of Montana's 85,000 Wild Turkeys (c) John AshleyThese wary birds can fly 45-50 mph over short distances and run a surprisingly swift 15-18 mph; that's why those breasts (flight muscles) and drumsticks (leg muscles) look so plump on a dinner platter.

Like us, coyotes also enjoy a meal of tender turkey. And in one intriguing study, coyotes apparently became more proficient at finding incubating hens when it rained. Using their keen sense of smell, the coyotes were more adept at sniffing out wet turkeys. It sort of makes the curious person ponder what a wet turkey smells like.

Montana's turkeys prefer drier habitats that have rugged, open, older tree stands (especially Ponderosa pine) mixed with some scattered grasslands or shrubs. Ponderosa pine seeds are one of the adults' favorite food. Young "poults" eat mostly grasshoppers and beetles found in wet, grassy areas for the first 2-3 weeks, before shifting to the adult diet of 75-85% plant matter. When drought reduces the pine cone crop, turkeys eat more grass seeds and wild fruits, like kinnikinnick berries. More than 75 items have been identified for summer and winter diets.

In both summer and winter, Wild Turkeys also need older, taller trees to roost in at night. Their first choice is for large, old-growth trees with open branching. One study found that the roost trees were on average 70 feet tall and 163 years old.

And speaking of old and wild turkey-types, some of our local Montana chapters of the National Wild Turkey Foundation apparently like to show off and compete with colorful names: Sweet Grass Strutters, Northwest MT Longbeards, Missoula Valley Longspurs, and (my favorite) the Last Chance Gobblers.

Obviously, if you were willing to form flocks and compete in turkey-calling contests, wearing what appears to be a large, white diaper (video below), then you would have the necessary sense of humor to survive in Montana.

Behind the lens: My turkey transplant photo is from a pre-dawn capture near Trout Creek, Montana. Grain was used to lure the birds in, then small rockets shot a big net across the flock. Then they just grab 'em and bag 'em. (Biology ain't always pretty.) They'll use cardboard boxes instead of burlap sacks when they are moving the birds very far.

Behind the biology: A.S. Leopold, the son of the father of modern wildlife biology, Aldo Leopold, wrote an interesting critique in 1944 about ham-handed attempts at introducing hybrid turkeys into the wild. You can read it here.

Watch "My Life as a Turkey" (50:38 minutes) here on Nature.