Wild turkey

Wild turkeys, while not native to Montana, are believed to have been domesticated by early American natives based on archaeological evidence found in Mexico and Tennessee.

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Fifty-five years ago, Jack Adkins was frustrated. A biologist for Washington’s Department of Game, Adkins was trying to catch turkeys in Stevens County using a 90-by-40-foot net propelled by “three projectiles (shot) from a small cannon.”

It wasn’t working.

“We’ve had all sorts of problems,” Adkins told The Spokesman-Review in January 1964. “But the main one is the wariness of the birds.”

Adkins knew these turkeys well. Just four years before, he and other biologists released 17 of the large birds into the wild after obtaining them from Wyoming. They’d reproduced, and in 1964 it was estimated there were between 250 and 300 in the hills and fields along the Columbia River near Rice, Washington. That success prompted Adkins to try and catch a few and transport them to the Blue Mountains.

But the winged foreigners eluded him, and he retreated in defeat. (He would return a month later and succeed, according to a subsequent story.)

Imagine how surprised Adkins would be if he were to drive through Spokane’s South Hill neighborhood today, decades later, only to have to stop and wait for a haughty flock to cross the road — turkeys that, in all likelihood, are the distant descendants of the wary birds he tried to net all those years ago.

How did a species that didn’t exist in the Inland Northwest less than a lifetime ago, and that was on the verge of extinction throughout the continent, become so ubiquitous?

The answer starts thousands of years ago. In Mexico.

‘Human-turkey’ relations

Cyler Conrad grew up on the South Hill, went to Lewis and Clark High School, took anthropology classes at Eastern Washington University and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in archaeology. In 2010, he became obsessed with what he calls the “human-turkey” relationship.

“It’s just too cool to stop studying,” he said.

As an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Conrad examines ancient evidence of turkeys in pueblos throughout the southwest. Shell fragments. Old enclosures used to house the birds. Depictions of turkeys drawn on pots.

“There are ceramic vessels that probably functioned as turkey watering bowls,” he said.

Turkey and human relations have been intertwined for thousands of years.

Archaeologists believe turkeys were first domesticated in south-central Mexico in 800 BCE by pre-Aztecan people and again in the southwest of the United States in 200 BCE. The birds likely were first valued for their feathers, not their meat. Adult turkeys sport more than 3,500 feathers. The vibrant plumage was used in ceremonies and to make robes, blankets and more.

Many of the very complaints now leveled at turkeys — their brazenness, their ability to seemingly live anywhere and their desire to eat everything — are probably what made them easily domesticated, Conrad said. Exactly how that taming happened isn’t known, but it’s possible a rafter of turkeys — the technical term for a group of the birds — were hanging out by a village eating garbage and never left.

“They can have a really diverse wild diet, or they can thrive on a diet that is essentially monoculture,” Conrad said. “They are able to survive and function well in a variety of different environments as long as they have some sort of stable access to food and water.”

By the time Columbus came to the Americas in 1492 it is estimated there were 10 million wild and domestic birds on the continent. Historians don’t know who brought the first turkeys to Europe, but the birds proved popular, both as ornamentation and sustenance.

“By 1573, turkeys had become a main course in English Christmas dinners,” writes Jim Sterba his book “Nature Wars.” “In the 18th century, it was common for employers to reward their workers with gift turkeys at Christmas.”

Those European-bred varieties are the ancestors of the turkeys most of us now eat for Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, the ancient domesticated turkey in the Southwest, known as the Pueblo domesticated turkey or M. gallopavo ssp., likely fell victim to European violence. As indigenous peoples succumbed to disease, slavery and the sword, their turkeys went extinct, Conrad said.

“It’s really a tragedy,” he said. “The domesticated turkey subspecies disappeared.”

But not completely.

Some of those ancient genes “live on in those wild Merriam’s.”

And those wild Merriam’s? They’re wandering Spokane's South Hill.

Turkey fan

A male turkey fans his tail feather in a display of his attributes. Seen here from behind, it's evident the turkey drops its wings to the ground as it fans.

‘Torn to pieces’

Up until about 100 years ago, being a wild animal in the United States was a tough gig. Rapacious logging, commercial hunting and agricultural development pushed deer, elk, bears, wolves, passenger pigeons and more to the brink of extinction — and, in some cases, beyond.

“The indigenous bison herd, 60 million or more strong at one time, was down to a few hundred stragglers,” writes Timothy Egan in his book “The Big Burn.” “The ecosystem of the high plains, which had been compared to Eden by Lewis and Clark, was being torn to pieces. Where birds had once blotted the skies of migratory flyways, it was hard at times to find a single duck on a fall afternoon.”

It was no different for turkeys. Historic accounts of commercial hunting list “single-day harvests numbering in the hundreds of birds, according to a history prepared by the National Wild Turkey Federation. The birds also lost habitat as forests were cleared for farmland, development and industry.

“After the Civil War, industrial logging began in earnest,” the turkey federation’s history states. “Railroads simultaneously opened up whole new forests as well as new markets, while using tremendous amounts of timber for crossties.”

By 1920, turkeys were gone from 18 of the 39 states they’d originally lived in. At their lowest, turkey numbers were generously estimated at 200,000, just 2% of the pre-European population. Throughout the continent their numbers had declined by 90%, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

But attitudes were changing and the turkeys’ fortunes, alongside that of deer, elk and other wildlife, were on an upswing.

Campus turkey

A turkey crosses the Montana State University Billings campus in 2015.


Starting in the mid-1800s and continuing today, farms have been abandoned, first on the East Coast, and then increasingly through the gut and western flank of the country. As people moved to cities and suburbs they left tracts of land unmanaged.

“During the Great Depression there was wholesale abandonment of family farms, as some 14 million rural Americans left their homes in search of work,” according to the turkey federation’s history. “As these farms slowly reverted to native grasses, shrubs, and trees, wild turkey habitat began to emerge.”

At the same time, Americans were grappling with the evils of excess. Fueled by the writings, policies and thinking of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and others, conservation was becoming an American ethos.

Conservationists wrestled deer, elk, bears and more from the brink of extinction. Turkeys were no different, except at first, they failed.

“Restorers gathered wild birds, hatched their eggs and raised the poults in pens, and released them as young adults into isolated public forests,” writes Sterba. “Lacking survival skills, they died.”

Reasons for this varied. Some argued the wild birds’ genetics were “contaminated by the genes of domestic birds.” Others wondered if the captive hens were incapable of teaching their young about the dangers of the wild, having themselves never lived in the wild.

“Another intriguing explanation of wild turkey docility was that birds in the wild weren’t wild at all,” Sterba writes. “Indians in some places, remember, essentially farmed the forest, creating habitat and food for the wild species they needed to survive. … That could explain why European settlers found ‘wild’ turkeys to be docile. The birds had essentially been trained to stick around by Indians using corn and other food.”

There remained some wild turkeys — pockets of wary resistance scattered across the landscape — but they were too hard to catch for any sort of large-scale reintroduction. Turkeys can sprint 25 mph, have keen eyesight and, with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet, are fast flyers, albeit for short distances.

This cycle repeated over and over until, in 1948, a wildlife refuge manager in Missouri invented a cannon net to catch birds using surplus ordnance from WWII.

Biologists lured the birds in with corn or other food sources and then, using canons, fired a net over the top of them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, alongside state agencies, started reintroducing the birds to their original territory. Soon, agencies were introducing turkeys to areas they had never lived in, driven by the desires of hunters hoping to stalk the tasty fowls.

Winged immigrants

The history of turkeys in Washington is well represented visually by looking at the files from The Spokesman-Review’s archive.

The manila envelope labelled “TURKEY, THE Thru 1968” is thin and holds just a smattering of yellowing clippings. The packet labeled 1969-1979 is a little larger, containing a handful of references to the big birds.

And then it explodes. The 1980s onward packet is thick, its seams worn from the pressure of the clippings contained within.

The earliest references are to turkey research at Washington State University. Turkey farming used to be a big business in Washington, after all, and WSU led the nation in the turkey sciences.

But wild turkeys didn’t exist, and had never existed, in Washington or the Inland Northwest until the 1960s.

Like elsewhere in the nation, the first successful Washington reintroduction was in 1960. That’s when 17 Merriam’s wild turkeys from Wyoming were released near Rice. Four years later their numbers had exploded.

Across the state line a similar story unfolded. In 1961 the first turkeys were released into the Salmon River Breaks of southern Idaho. By 1966 they had come to the Panhandle near St. Maries.

Jack McNeel released the 15 or so birds, brought from Lewiston, on a cold February day north of St. Maries. One at a time, the big birds sprang from their cages and flew out over the middle of the lake, landed, surveyed the snowy landscape and flew back to the safety of the trees.

Except for the last bird, said McNeel, a 31-year veteran of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. When it landed in the middle of the lake, an eagle struck.

“This eagle flew out from the trees, made a couple circles and came down and just clobbered that turkey. Sent him rolling,” McNeel said in an interview earlier this month. “The eagle circled and landed right in front of that turkey. … They were about the same size. Eyeball-to-eyeball. Anyways, (the eagle) took off and flew back into the trees. That turkey ran all the way to the nearest bush that he could get into. I wished I had a movie of that.”

Near-misses aside, turkey reintroduction in Idaho was well on its way.

The first hunting season in Washington was a one-and-a-half day hunt in September 1965. Two years later, Idaho followed suit with a limited hunt. And while the population was still small, landowners were starting to complain. In 1966, just six years after the first introduction, northeastern Washington hunters requested a longer hunting season in hopes of driving the birds from their farms.

But turkeys weren’t yet widespread. It would take the formation of a nonprofit dedicated solely to turkeys to truly jump start the reintroduction and send a once rare ground-loving bird crashing into the lives of city-dwellers.

‘Big into turkeys’

The National Wild Turkey Federation is, as you’d expect, all about turkeys.

Formed in 1973 it was the spark that ignited turkey relocation efforts. Like other organizations — the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for instance — the NWTF helps cash-strapped state wildlife agencies get projects done, while advancing its own goals.

“In Stevens County we were working with logging companies as far as going in and planting stuff on their skid trails,” said Joey McCanna, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional conflict specialist. “And it was all grant money from the National Wild Turkey Federation.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, McCanna was involved in a number of turkey trappings and relocations. NWTF money allowed the Department of Fish and Wildlife to improve habitat, for turkeys and other animals.

“At that time, we had management in Olympia that was big into turkeys,” he said.

The NWTF still wields power when it comes to state management decisions, often protesting expanded hunting seasons or other actions they deem anti-turkey. A former WDFW biologist who oversaw much of the turkey relocation work in the ‘90s and 2000s is now a regional director for NWTF.

By the mid-2000s, when McCanna stopped working with turkeys, the population had bloomed.

“I was born and raised in Chewelah and graduated from Chewelah in ’89,” he said. “If you saw a turkey it was a rarity.”

Those turkeys expanded and soon were in Spokane after naturally migrating from Stevens, Pend Oreille and Kootenai counties.

Now, turkeys are in every state except Alaska, with a population of more than 6 million. In 2018, Washington hunters killed 7,332 of the birds. Between 1984 and 2004 the number of turkey hunters jumped from 689 to more than 15,000. Exactly how many turkeys live in the state isn’t known. Three species of turkey — Merriam’s, Eastern and Rio Grandes — make Washington a turkey-hunting paradise.

The ecological impact this non-native species has on the region’s native fauna and flora isn’t clear. According to the state’s 2005-2010 turkey management plan there have “been many wild turkey studies” showing that wild turkeys don’t have “negative population-level impacts on plants, animals or other birds.”

However, in California, another state where turkeys were introduced, the birds’ ecological impacts have been criticized. But those impacts haven’t been studied in a comprehensive way, according to a 2016 Scientific American article.

McCanna said he hasn’t seen any studies examining the impact of turkeys in Washington or anywhere else. Anecdotally, hunters blame turkeys for a decreased grouse population, although that hasn’t been proven.

“I don’t think we know,” McCanna said. “We’re just not sure.”

Managers are sure of one thing though: Turkeys are one of the most complained-about animals. WDFW’s regional office receives more than 100 calls in the winter, most of them from Spokane’s South Hill, McCanna said.

“Some people love to see the turkeys,” he said. “Some people don’t.”

Living with turkeys

In 1994 a Spokane valley man found a live turkey on his deck.

“It hissed, spat and flapped its wings,” reported The Spokesman-Review.

That same year the Associated Press reported that, in Michigan, “A gang of turkeys went for state troopers after causing a fender bender, forcing police to use pepper spray to break them up.” A Coeur d’Alene man reported between 80 and 100 turkeys roosting in the trees behind his home in 2011.

Last year, Marilyn Johnson was attacked by a turkey near her Cliff Park home. She was knocked down and started bleeding — whether from a claw or the fall is not clear — but for Johnson, who is on blood thinners, it was a scary incident, and just the most recent in a laundry-list of turkeys run afoul.

The turkeys we see in town, in sharp contrast to the turkeys hunters are currently stalking in the woods of Washington and Idaho, are habituated to people. Like their ancient, domesticated Mexican ancestors, they’re not wary of humans.

“They don’t see humans as a threat and that’s when they become aggressive,” McCanna said.

But unlike the ancient pre-Aztecan peoples, modern city dwellers don’t know how to handle these wild, independent creatures stomping through our neatly ordered worlds.

On the South Hill, neighbors are divided, with some enjoying the turkeys for the wild spice they inject into the urban setting and other viewing them as out of control invaders, scratching and pecking their way across the landscape.

WDFW has tried and failed to control the urban population. The Spokane City Council has resisted calls for a stricter no-feeding ordinance, and the idea of killing the urban turkeys have been met with outright horror by local politicians. Last fall, WDFW expanded the turkey hunting season, largely in response to farmer complaints and overabundance.

Think what you will, the fact remains the turkeys that block traffic, tear up lawns, delight wildlife watchers, perplex hunters and generally run amok in northeast Washington are not native. Instead, they’re the descendants of immigrants who found an ecological niche.

Turkeys in Washington are many things. And many of those things are good: a conservation success, a species brought back from the brink of extinction, a big-time money maker for a state wildlife agency that depends on hunters’ fees, a boon for urban nature lovers looking for wildlife in their backyards.

But they can also be a nuisance and threat, tearing up gardens, attacking pets and occasionally people, upending the imposed order of our lawns and lives and challenging, however minutely, human dominion.

In short, they are a distillation of our relationship with wildlife. We’ve hunted, trapped and otherwise pushed species after species to the brink, only to haul some back. Many of those animals — deer, bears, elk, wolves and more — are thriving in a country that’s abandoned its farmland, reduced logging and is increasingly urban.

The history of turkeys shows that conservation works. But, the question remains, can we live with the fruits of that success?

This article originally ran on billingsgazette.com.


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