A hearty Happy Thanksgiving to each of you! It only seems appropriate to write my column this week on turkeys in Arizona. Many folks don’t even realize that we have wild turkeys in Arizona – but we do.
I saw my first wild turkey in Arizona when I was a 13-year-old Boy Scout. Our troop was hiking the 50-mile Chiricahua Crest Trail in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. One night we camped at Rustler Park, and it was while we were there that a wild turkey flew right through our campsite!
That was a memorable experience – not only to see a wild turkey, but to see it in flight. It was a new bird species for my life list and, to this day, I still have my handwritten notes of the birds that I saw on that 50-mile hike.
Since my first wild turkey sighting, 40 years ago, I have seen turkeys in a variety of locations around the state. Probably one of the closest places to see turkeys near Prescott is on Spruce Mountain, just east of Senator Highway in the Bradshaw Mountains.
I had another memorable turkey sighting a few years ago. I was with a group of about twenty birders, and we were breaking for lunch along the banks of the Hassayampa River in Walnut Grove. As we were getting situated to eat our lunches, a hen came trotting up as if she had been lonely and was happy to have some company. She was not afraid of our group at all. In fact, she seemed quite curious about all of us and what we were doing. The behavior seemed uncharacteristic for a wild bird, but perhaps she was raised in captivity and released into the wild.
A couple of years ago, there was a big tom turkey that was hanging out in the Forest Trails subdivision. It was very comfortable around people, and took full advantage of the bird seed homeowners were putting out for their wild birds. It could be seen frequently resting in the shade of an open garage and would perch on rooftops in the neighborhood!
If you look up wild turkey in a field guide, such as “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” it has several illustrations of turkeys – some are labeled Southwestern and others are labeled Eastern. While turkeys occur in almost every state in the continental United States, there are several different subspecies that occur regionally.
There are three subspecies of wild turkeys in Arizona: Merriam’s, Gould’s and Rio Grande. Of the three subspecies, Merriam’s and Gould’s are considered native to Arizona. The subspecies Rio Grande was recently introduced from populations in Utah into the Black Rock Mountains on the Arizona Strip in northern Arizona.
Merriam’s turkeys are found primarily in ponderosa pine habitat, with the best populations occurring north of the Gila River. They are generally found in elevations between 3,500 feet up to 10,000 feet.
Gould’s turkeys prefer a mountainous habitat and are found primarily in the sky islands of southeastern Arizona. This subspecies is rare in Arizona and New Mexico, but much more abundant in the mountains of northern Mexico.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is an organization founded on preserving wild turkeys and aiding in reintroduction efforts. Prescott has a local chapter of the NWTF if you are interested in getting involved. The website for the national organization is www.nwtf.org.