Thanksgiving Turkey...Gobblers Abound in South Texas Wildlands

An estimated 46 million turkeys will be cooked and eaten this Thanksgiving. According to the National turkey Federation, 95 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The vast majority of these turkey dinners will be the domesticated variety, but wild turkeys thrive throughout North America.

Wild turkeys are more abundant in Texas than any other state, and Texas Parks and Wildlife, (TPW), biologists estimate that more than one million birds roam the state. Fall turkey season in South Texas opened November 3 and runs thru January 20 in 26 South Texas counties and thru February 24 in others. Not only do the dates differ from county to county, but some counties allow the taking of either sex while in others only gobblers can be killed. The best advice is to check your TPW Outdoor Annual before hunting turkey in Texas. The one constant is that hunters are allowed a total of four turkeys for the spring and fall seasons combined.

The turkey is native to Mexico and the Eastern United States, and the various farm raised breeds that will grace most platters Thanksgiving are all descendants of their wild brethren. There are six different types of wild turkeys, four of which occur in the United States and two that are native south of the Rio Grande. All belong to the same species but have subtle differences and are adapted to life in particular habitats.

There are two varieties of wild turkeys common to Texas. They are the Eastern turkey found in the forests of East Texas and the Rio Grande turkey found in the south, central and northern regions of the state. Texas is also home to small population of Merriam's turkeys that inhabit the Davis Mountains.

All three species are similar in appearance, with the Eastern being slightly darker and larger than the Rio Grande. A mature Rio Grande gobbler averages 16-18 pounds while Eastern's average 19-21 pounds. The Merriam's is even larger with some toms weighing more than 26 pounds. Whitish tail tips and a white patch on the rump distinguish the Merriam's from other Texas turkeys.

The native Rio Grande turkey flourishes throughout the ranch country of Deep South Texas, and this has been a banner year for turkey production. Timely rains have provided abundant cover and food for native turkeys, and they have responded with above average clutches and enhanced survival rates.

Echoing thru the oak mottes, the loud gobbling of turkeys heralds in the spring in South Texas. The lengthening days signal the start of one of the most colorful courtship rituals in nature. If the spirited gobbling of amorous toms doesn't attract hens, then the plumage of the gaudy gobblers is sure to impress the most reluctant of females.

This year, even before spring wildflowers started to carpet the brush country, bronze plumaged gobblers began their ritual strutting. Standing tall with their chests puffed out and tail feathers spread wide, the toms put on quite a show. Adding to the impressive effect are their long back beards that may grow to a foot. Topping it all off are the fleshy red wattles adorning their bare blue and pinkish heads.

Perhaps it was the rain, perhaps the balmy temperatures, or some combination but this year during the second week in January I rounded a sendero on the Yturria Ranch just north of Raymondville and encountered a pair of gobblers locked in combat. An increase in daylight normally triggers hormonal changes, and male turkeys usually begin strutting in February and March. However, these two rivals were ahead of schedule and deciding in advance who boss bird was.

One would grip the other's beak in his own and attempt to throw his rival off balance. If successful, he would have pummeled him with wings and spurs. They struggled back and forth for some 20 minutes with neither toppling before finally separating with one fleeing and the other in subdued pursuit. I think they were both pretty worn out as there is no telling how long they had been fighting before I arrived.

With wings drooping and feathers rattling vigorously, the dominant toms strut about competing for hens to join their harems. After mating, the normally gregarious hens wander off singly to make their nests in shallow depressions. A hen normally lays an egg a day until she has a clutch of 8 to 15 eggs. She incubates them for approximately four weeks while taking breaks to forage and slack her thirst.

Young turkeys or poults grow rapidly and are able to make short flights within two weeks, but they are extremely vulnerable to predators. Hawks, bobcats, raccoons and coyotes all anticipate the spring turkey hatch. Those of the brood that make it through the first few critical weeks of development will remain together with the hen thru the winter, often joining other hens and their offspring in a larger flock. A survival rate of 50 percent is considered excellent for a clutch of turkeys, and this year with superlative range conditions many hens managed to exceed that ratio.

At dusk the various flocks often converge and seek shelter in a grove of tall trees. The lofty branches of native oaks provide sanctuary from most predators. There is safety in numbers, and dozens of turkeys spend the night in a communal roost.

Wild turkey can live for twelve years or more if they are able to avoid predators and find plenty to eat, but an average life span is closer to three or four years. The average longevity of a domestic turkey from birth to freezer is 26 weeks.

The word "turkey" gives rise to a rather unflattering image these days, perhaps in reference to the ponderous and not too bright domestic variety. But there is no comparison between domestic poultry and wild turkeys.

Wild turkeys are well adapted to survival and are extremely vigilant. They posses exceptional eyesight and have an uncanny ability to detect even the slightest movement. Just ask the many devoted hunters who have spent days in the filed only to have wary gobblers stay just out of range.

The Rio Grande gobbler is a lean and agile bird that can race away at 25 miles per hour or take flight in an instant. A sleek wild tom tips the scale at less than 20 pounds, while a flightless domestic bird may weigh in excess of 60 pounds.

Since that fateful first Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621, America's wild turkeys were relentlessly hunted. The combination of overshooting and clearing of woodland habitat very nearly wiped out the wild turkey.

After dropping to a low of approximately 30,000 birds by the early 1900's turkeys today are thriving across North America. Thanks to hunting regulation, habitat management and restocking efforts there are estimated to be more than six million birds nationwide.

In an average year more than 100,000 hunters harvest some 31,000 wild turkeys throughout the state during the fall season. While domestic turkeys do make a fine Thanksgiving meal, if you really want to dine like a pilgrim, there is nothing quite as tasty as a wild turkey.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore