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Wildlife Species Guide

Wild Turkeys in Nebraska
Wild Turkeys The Turkey's Year Monitoring The Flocks
Challenge of the Hunt Sex Identification Age Determination

The return of the wild turkey to Nebraska, other states that historically had turkey populations and to states outside the turkey's historic range is one of the great success stories of wildlife management. Wild turkeys now are found in every state but Alaska, and they occupy more square miles of habitat than any other North American gamebird.

In 1804, Lewis and Clark reported seeing wild turkeys along the Missouri River in present Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and South Dakota. The eastern wild turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), one of the six recognized subspecies, is native to Nebraska. Its historical range included the entire eastern half of the United States. It is possible that the Rio Grande, (M. g. intermedia) also was native, since its range included the south-central Plains at least as far north as Kansas.

turkey release The other surviving subspecies are (M. g. osceola) of southern Florida, Merriam's (M. g. merriami) of the mountain regions of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, and Gould's (M. g. mexicana) of northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico.

A sixth subspecies, M. g. gallopavo, is thought to be extinct, although that subspecies from southern Mexico is considered the source of domestic turkeys. It is thought to have been the subspecies carried from southern Mexico to Spain by Spanish explorers by 1520. Thus the domestic turkeys brought by the colonists to North America in about 1607 originated from stock that had arrived in Spain, Europe and England from the Americas less than 100 years earlier.

The decline of the wild turkey began almost immediately after the arrival of colonists on the eastern seaboard. Uncontrolled year-round hunting and habitat destruction quickly reduced populations. Plymouth Colony enacted the first conservation law in 1626,limiting the cutting and sale of timber.

Wild turkeys were extirpated from 18 of the 39 states of the bird's ancestral range, and by the beginning of the 20th century populations reached their lowest levels nationwide. The wild turkey was extirpated from Nebraska by about 1915.

turkey release The first attempts by individuals, groups and state wildlife agencies to restore wild turkeys in the United States failed. Releases of more than 330,000 pen-raised turkeys on about 800 sites resulted in 760 failures. The pen-raised approach cost millions of dollars and, by one estimate, delayed the restoration of the wild turkey by almost two decades.

The modern history of wild turkeys in Nebraska began in 1959 with the release in the Pine Ridge of 28 Merriam's turkeys trapped in South Dakota and Wyoming. Although Merriam's are not native to Nebraska, the release succeeded, and the Pine Ridge population grew to about 3,000 birds in only four nesting seasons.

Buoyed by that success, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologists released 518 live-trapped Rio Grande turkeys into riparian-woodland habitat in central and south-central Nebraska in 1961 and 1962. The Rio Grande release program had limited success, but Merriam's introductions continued to meet and exceed expectations.

Releases in the Pine Ridge succeeded in part because habitat conditions there resemble those in the Merriam's historical range and because that subspecies is adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, including extremes of weather, temperature and habitat.

The 1959 release took place in February and March at two sites. Three juvenile toms and 17 hens were released on Cottonwood Creek northwest of Crawford, and three toms and five hens were released on Deadhorse Creek southwest of Chadron. The birds wintered near the release sites but dispersed as the spring breeding and nesting season approached.

In their first nesting season, the 28 adult birds remained within five miles of the release sites and wintered broods in the same area. On Cottonwood Creek, where only juvenile toms were released, the flock increased from 20 to 91 in the first breeding season.

By the fourth year, turkeys had moved into Wyoming and South Dakota, and nesting birds and summer broods were reported in about 80 percent of the suitable habitat. In the fall of 1962, biologists estimated the Pine Ridge population had reached at least 3,000 birds. In the mid-1960s, the Pine Ridge turkey range apparently reached its carrying capacity, and the population of Merriam's turkeys in northwestern Nebraska reached a plateau.

A turkey trapping and transplanting program started in the winter of 1961 began the colonization of other pine-forested regions of Nebraska, with birds from the Cottonwood Creek flock serving as parent stock. By 1963, turkeys had been released in all areas of the state with natural stands of ponderosa pine. Releases along the Niobrara River succeeded, but those in the Wildcat Hills and Cheyenne escarpments south of the Pine Ridge were less successful.

Turkeys released along the eastern Niobrara River moved into areas dominated by hardwoods, and biologists began to consider deciduous habitat for additional releases. From 1963 to 1970, 19 additional sites were stocked. Increases occurred in most areas, regardless of the habitat type, and peak numbers were reached within three breeding seasons.

During that period, Merriam's turkeys along the lower Niobrara River and its feeder streams apparently crossed with game-farm stock, resulting in a comparatively successful establishment of hybrid birds. Previous stocking programs using birds reared on game farms had failed, but the hybrid birds were successful in the hardwood forest and cropland habitat of the lower Niobrara River and its drainages.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hybrid birds from the eastern Niobrara region were released at scattered sites from Boyd County in northeastern Nebraska to Richardson County in the southeast, along the central Platte and Loup River drainages and at several sites along the Elkhorn River.

Nebraska's wild turkey range now includes most major river drainages and the Pine Ridge. Highest population densities occur in the Pine Ridge and the Niobrara River valley and in parts of the Republican River drainage. Turkeys also have adapted to many small, isolated woodlands, shelterbelts and thinly wooded stream courses.

Nebraska ranks about 48th in the nation in woodland acreage, but about 19th in the harvest of wild turkeys. Since the first wild turkey season in 1962, about 286,000 permit holders have taken more than 124,000 birds. The 1995 statewide harvest for the spring and fall shotgun and archery seasons was about 8,000 birds.

The future of Nebraska's wild turkeys appears stable, even worthy of cautious optimism. Habitat destruction and changing land-use patterns in prime turkey habitat could have significant effects, but the remarkable bird's ability to adapt and thrive should help the wild turkey meet the challenges of a new century.

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