As the leaves begin to change and the hot temperatures of summer melt into cool, crisp mornings on the Mogollon Rim, outdoor enthusiasts have a perfect opportunity to encounter one of nature’s most interesting wildlife species.
The Merriam’s turkey, one of five subspecies of wild turkey in North America, is native to the ponderosa pine, oak, and pinyon-juniper forests in Arizona. Unlike his domestic cousin that most of us will serve on Thanksgiving, this noble bird possesses acute hearing and eyesight, along with a wariness that helps it avoid the multitude of predators that prey upon it. Benjamin Franklin so admired the traits of the wild turkey, that he proposed it as our national symbol.
While quietly walking the trails or through the forest both above and below the Rim, you may hear a noise that at first sounds like a dog barking. In reality, the sounds you are hearing are likely to be the clucks and yelps of a hen turkey calling to her poults, the young turkeys of that year. Last spring, she sat on her nest of 10-14 eggs for 28 days until they hatched. From the day they hatch, the poults will be the object of every hungry predator. By fall, several hens and their surviving broods will join together forming a group of 10-30 birds, called a flock, that will stay together through the winter. Their daytime hours are spent foraging for insects, berries, pine seeds, pinyon nuts and acorns to put their bodies in condition to survive the winter months.
The wild turkey was an important food source for our ancestors. This colorful bird makes excellent table fare. They were harvested to such a degree that they were nearly eliminated in some areas of the country. Early accounts of settlers under the Rim often mentioned hunting wild turkey for food. By 1973, there were an estimated 1.3 million wild turkey left in the United States. In that year, a group of men in Virginia who were concerned about the turkey populations formed the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). Since that time, the organization, now headquartered in Edgefield, S.C., has grown to over 2,200 NWTF chapters across the country with about 500,000 members. Their efforts in cooperation with state wildlife management agencies to trap and relocate turkeys to suitable habitats have resulted in an estimated population of 7 million wild turkey today.
In Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission authorizes the limited harvest of wild turkey in both a spring and fall season. The spring season, which is scheduled after the peak breeding period, is designed to harvest gobblers, or male turkeys. The male turkey sports a “beard” of specialized feathers that protrude from his chest anywhere from 1 to 12 inches. The regulations for the spring turkey hunt restrict the harvest to a “bearded turkey,” however, up to 15 percent of the hen turkeys in Arizona may have a thin, wispy beard, thereby making them legal for harvest. The fall season allows hunters to harvest any turkey. Hunters that were successful in drawing a fall turkey hunting tag had their chance to bag a Merriam’s turkey Oct. 5-11.
There are a number of ways that hunters can find turkeys to hunt. The first and easiest is to visually spot the flocks of turkey as they move through the woods. At this time of year the flocks of hens and poults will be separate from the small flocks of jakes (immature males) and gobblers (mature males). Later in the winter, all the birds will join together forming large flocks.
The second way to find turkeys is to look for sign … tracks, droppings (excrement), feathers, and scratchings in the leaves and pine needles. Turkey tracks are approximately 4-6 inches long with three toes in front and one in back. Stock ponds or tanks are a good place to look for tracks. The droppings of the gobbler and hen look different. Male droppings are in the shape of a “J” while the droppings of the hen are a squiggle resembling a Hershey’s kiss. Turkeys lose feathers all year long, so finding feathers tells you that turkeys are living in that area but will not tell you how recently they were there. At this time of year, scratching areas can give you the best indication that turkeys have recently used the area. Turkeys scratch the pine needles and leaves out of the way to expose pine seeds, pinyon nuts, and acorns. Scratched areas look like a leaf rake was used to move the needles or leaves. Fresh scratches will be free of needles or leaves and the exposed soil is often still moist.
The third and hardest way to find turkeys in the fall is to locate the trees that the turkeys roost in at night so you can be in the vicinity in the morning when they fly down. Turkeys are creatures of habit and will use the same group of trees to roost in for many years. Roost trees, usually 18-30 inch ponderosa pines, have a lot of droppings and feathers under them, some as much as 12 inches deep. It is important to note that ethical hunters would NEVER shoot a turkey out of a roost tree.
Once turkeys have been located in the fall, there are three primary methods of hunting them. The first is to note the direction that they are feeding and get in front of them so that you will be in range with your shotgun when they pass by. Another method is to locate fresh tracks at a stock tank or pond and build or erect a ground blind to conceal yourself so that when the flock comes to the tank to look for insects and drink, you should be in range for a shot. The third and more challenging technique is to run into the flock making lots of noise to scatter them in multiple directions. After waiting for 30-40 minutes at the scatter site for the birds to settle down, the hunter can duplicate the Kee Kee sound that the hen turkey will use to re-assemble the flock. As the birds cautiously come back, the hunter may be in position and range to harvest a turkey. An ethical shot at a turkey with a shotgun is at the head and neck at a distance of 40 yards or less. Shots to the body are rarely effective and may only result in wounding the turkey.
While hunting wild turkey, there are several things to keep in mind to help you be successful. First and foremost is that while wild turkeys do not have a well-developed sense of smell, they can see and hear 20 times better than a human, and they see color. Being loud or moving unnecessarily will usually alert the turkey to your presence. Be alert to the presence of other hunters or recreationists. Since you will be dressed in camouflage from head to toe, it will be difficult for another hunter to spot you. The most important rule of hunting anything is SAFETY FIRST. No turkey is worth being mistaken for game and being shot at. Finally, be patient. If your stalk or calling is not successful the first time, form a new plan and try again. Remember that the measure of success of a hunt is not dependent on filling your tag. The experience of being in the forest with your family or friends and enjoying all that nature has to offer is the real measure of success.
Turkey hunting is a great way to introduce young people to big game hunting. For those families that are inexperienced with hunting in general or turkey hunting specifically, the National Wild Turkey Federation, in cooperation with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and other wildlife organizations, conducts two camps for junior hunters and their families in April during the Juniors only turkey hunt. The camps are free and include food, seminars on turkey hunting and experienced mentors to assist first-time junior turkey hunters in trying to harvest a bird. Youth Outdoors Unlimited, an Arizona organization dedicated to introducing youngsters to the sport of hunting and fishing conducts a similar camp in the White Mountains.
To find out more about these camps and register to participate, contact Tim Denny at firstname.lastname@example.org for the NWTF camp near Happy Jack, Rich Williams at azgobbler60@ gmail.com for the NWTF camp between Payson and Heber, or Woody Farnsworth at woody@ youthoutdoorsunlimited.com for the Y.O.U. camp in the White Mountains.