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Wild Turkeyin Colorado and the Central Plains
Colorado and Surrounding States
By J. Michael Geiger
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2015 J. Michael Geiger
All rights reserved.
The Western Turkey Species
**CAUTION: If you have never hunted Turkey before; Don't start, it is terribly addicting !
There are six species of Wild Turkey in the Americas. (The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management. Pg 32-45) These are: Osceola (Florida), Eastern (Midwest to East Coast), Goulds (SW New Mexico/Texas and Mexican Mountains), Ocellated (Campeche Mexico). In Colorado we have: Rio Grande (Riparian dwellers esp. near corn Midwest to West Coast), and Merriam's (Some Prairie and open fields, near corn but prefers Western Mountains and their Ponderosa Pines). Differentiation of species by observation may not be accurate, and DNA determination may be the only generally accepted method of determining crosses.
Rio Grande Wild Turkey
(The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management.pg 340-353)
Let's discuss the premier big bird in the west, the Rio Grande Wild Turkey. Their body color has a copper sheen over predominantly brown body feathers, with a lack of white in the secondary tail feathers. The primary feather's tips are brown to buff .
When we mention the tail feathers, we are discussing primary feather fan tips, and secondary feather tips at the rump, and generally accepted for Rio Grande Wild Turkey, are the presence of darker brown to buff tips. There is a noticeable lack of white, they should be brown or buff on the tips.
Rio Grandes are the largest of the two western species of Wild Turkey. In the less well developed croplands of eastern Colorado and the west, mature Rio Grande Toms will range close to 18-20 lbs for average weight, and have been known to reach 24 lbs. Wild Turkey are reliably aged by spur length. Starting in the first year, the spurs grow at a rate of approximately ¼ inch per year until about year 5 when wear becomes an issue. When the sharp point on the spur becomes rounded, the reliability of this method decreases.
Rio Grande turkey, prefer riparian corridor areas. Water and woody plants are crucial habitat where broad leaf plants provide bugs to feed on. Corn fields are also central to their favored habitat because of the high protein content and rapid uptake by their systems. However, pinto beans and on occasion, soy beans, along with milo and millet are acceptable substitutes. Corn remains king on the menu of preferences.
Another important habitat element, is a decent roost. Rio Grande turkeys prefer to roost close to water. Turkey hunting lore explains it this way, "Turkey like to roost where they can hear their droppings splash into the water." Tall Prairie Cottonwood thickets and occasional Mountain Ash stands provide the favorable roost structures in the western states riparian corridors that Wild Turkey depend upon.
Merriam's Wild Turkey
(The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management.pg 333-342)
The second most plentiful species of turkey is Merriam's Wild Turkey. Their body color features a slight copper sheen over purple to blue black body feathers. The most observable trait is the appearance of lots of white on their lower backs and tail feather tips.
Merriam's primary tail feather fan tips are white to very light buff. The secondary feathers in the tail and rump appear to be all white tipped. The predominance of white in these feathers is probably the best indicator of a Merriam's.
Typically, Merriam's seem to be a bit smaller than Rio Grande's of the same age. For comparison, in 2014, on our property in Morgan County, two, five year old birds, of nearly identical spur length, were harvested. The Rio Grande weighed slightly over 21 lb., and the Merriam with nearly perfectly white tail tips, weighed in at 19.5 lb.
Merriam's aging determinates are the same as Rio Grande's. Their spur growth is also approximately ¼ inch per year to year 5 when wear becomes an issue.
The generally accepted theory about the stock to which Merriam's owe their origin, holds a conflict in itself. It seems to be generally accepted that Merriam's are a cross of Goulds and Rio Grande or, Goulds and Eastern birds, depending upon locale. Where crosses of Merriam's and Rio Grandes are claimed, (Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas) the diagnostic imperative will be DNA testing.
Among hunters where both species and probable crosses are prevalent, a good color mixture, in the primary and secondary feather tips, of brown, buff and white is accepted as a Merriam's/Rio Grande cross.
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MERRIAM'S AND RIO GRANDE WILD TURKEY
A key difference between Rio Grande and Merriam's, (The Wild Turkey, Expert Advice for Locating and Calling Big Gobblers, pg 25) is that in general, Merriam's hens do not nest during the spring of their first year, the reasons are still not clear.
To review the similarities and differences between these two species, both do well in riparian environments with nearby meadows, prairie cottonwoods, and with pine, or dense deciduous shelter belts. Merriam's have adapted to a wide range of environments, and have adapted readily to areas and habitat usually preferred by Rio Grande turkey.
Merriam's preferred habitat, not usually sought by Rio Grande birds, is rich in Ponderosa Pines, and scrub oak. Their diet is usually rich in pinon nuts, acorns and juniper berries, as well as red kinnikinnick berries, and wild strawberries. In mountainous terrain, their preference is for areas with heavy snows and fast running streams. Commonly, there are several miles between their wintering grounds and summer ranges.
Merriam's chief dietary characteristic is their ability to vary their diet when needed. For instance in the winter, Merriam's thrive on watercress, acorns, pinon nuts, prickly pear fruit, as well as local grain agriculture products such as milo, and corn.
TURKEY GENDER DIFFERENCES
(The Wild Turkey: Biology & Management. Pg 43-44)
TOMS: Mature Toms, in all species, are the larger gender. Characteristically, they can be larger by as much as twice the weight of a hen of the same age. They can appear to be 3'- 4' tall with their neck extended, when alerted, when they are running to hens, or other occasions, including when they are fleeing.
The Tom's head is usually bright red, but in display it is predominantly blue, white and red, their neck and wattle are brilliant red, and you often can see a snod over their beak in mature Toms. A Tom's chest, head and neck area are key identifying traits. Toms have noticeable beard feathers. Jakes and 2 year old birds have small beards of about five inches or less. A Tom's head and wattle will be strikingly red at any time of the year, but are most noticeable in the spring. Concerned or worried hens will often show "pink" on their head and neck area. Look for the difference.
In mature Tom's, the display of a full, even fan, will be evident when they are trying to attract hens. The smooth, full curve of the fan will usually denote birds three years old and older. In Jake's, birds of less than three years old, their fans, by contrast, will feature the center 4-6 primary feathers being dramatically taller, rising approximately 3" above the curve of the fan.
Few, after seeing a mature Tom in full courting display, will ever forget it. When a Tom is in display, their body feathers are noticeably puffed, and their body appears round and massive. Their neck and head will be tucked into the body, and the head will appear to be blue and/or white. Their fan is an even 180 degree arched fan. This display is used to aggressively signal territory or hen claim to other Toms.
Toms will often appear to stand straight up and be 3'or 4' tall, especially when curious or running to hens. Their necks are bright red and extended when alerted, gobbling, or curious and looking around.
On the roost, when trying to attract hens, Toms have a noticeable, rattling gobble. Sometimes they also will have a deeper sounding voice when using clucks, chirps and putts. Occasionally they will ping, this is a recognition call. This distinctive sound is much like the sonar ping on a submarine.
Hens are smaller birds than Toms of the same age by about half. The head covering of hens is more heavily feathered. Their head is mainly bluish and white with small amounts of pink apparent. Hens have more feathers on their necks, and occasionally will have a short, poorly formed beard on their chests. Bearded hens are legal to harvest in the spring, and a mature hen may have a beard as long as about five inches.
Usually the tails of hens are most noticeable when they fly. Occasionally, hens will fan display with their tails, much like Toms, except that their fans are much smaller.
Hens do a lot of "talking" and when hens are with poults, a constant stream of "Jenny chatter" can be heard. It consists of clucks, chirps, putts, and lots of contentment chatter to the flock while feeding.
Once the eggs have hatched, and when the poults are two weeks old, they begin to fly, and are able to roost on low branches, out of danger, with the hens.
Young turkey are called Poults. Rafters (flocks) form in the summer and they will contain poults, second nest poults, and mature hens. Poults have a characteristic whistle, usually a single note, repeated several times then a two-note break into chirps.
One and two year old Tom turkeys are referred to as Jakes. They are similar in size, during their first year, to hens, but have a noticeable amount of pale red showing on their heads and neck. The neck will be bare, and there will be a noticeable beard, 2 – 4 inches long. Their tail in display will be an even, circular fan, except for the middle four to six feathers which will rise above the arch of the fan, to square the middle of the fan. Finally the spurs will be round (not pointed) ¼" to ½" stubs.
WILD TURKEY COMMON CHARACTERISTICS
In the spring, the daily habit of Wild Turkeys, is to come off of the roost and feed, keeping lookout for an opportunity to mate. Toms will spend most of the day looking for mating opportunities, while hens, once mated, will be engaged with egg laying, resting and dusting. At early evening, all turkey will feed and water once more before going to roost just after sundown.
Turkeys are extremely wary birds, and live in a continual sense of fight-or-flight when responding to new stimuli. When they choose to escape danger, they prefer to run, rather that fly. Uncanny in their ability to understand their surroundings, one of their chief tools is their eyesight, which is superb. It affords them 270 degrees range of vision. Their second major survival tool is their hearing. Although their external ears are not readily apparent, Wild Turkeys have superb hearing, and are able to pinpoint the location of a sound from as much as several hundred yards away.
Unfortunately for them, as keen as most of their senses are, their olfactory sense, or ability to smell, is poor to non-existent. A typical comment used by turkey hunters to describe a turkey's inventory of senses is, "If turkey could smell, nobody would be able to shoot them."
All species of Wild Turkey seek similar habitat elements and food. They prefer tall trees for roosting. They frequent gullies and sand draws that have runs near heavy cover. Additionally, broadleaf cover, besides protecting young from the visibility of owls, hawks and eagles, will provide insects, and often is found around trees that provide hard mast such as hackberries, acorns, dogwoods, locust seed pods, and berries.
During periods of heavy snow, wild turkey may choose to remain on the roost all day.
LOCATING TURKEY – SCOUTING
Knowing the dietary and habitat requirements of these birds will help you to locate the best areas to scout. About two weeks prior to season, check the area that you plan to hunt for roost trees. These are the largest trees in an area, and are often surrounded with turkey droppings under the branches. The more droppings, the more often the tree is regularly used as a roost. Additionally, look for feathers, dusting spots, trails, and beak marks near water, all should be considered in context of the places that you find them as you scout an area.
Turkey droppings are diagnostic in shape. Rounded, snail, or pig tail shaped droppings are from hens, while "J" shaped droppings are from Toms.
Do your scouting quietly, efficiently, and thoroughly. As any unlucky hunter knows, when turkeys are spooked more than twice, they may move at least a mile away, and can take a week or more to return. Their ability to run at 20 miles per hour means that it will take them just 3 minutes to travel a mile. You must realize that your activities when scouting, especially if you try for a broad ranging coverage of an area, are likely to spook birds. They prefer their solitary locations, with plenty of suitable habitat. Use your eyes, ears and brains more than your feet to scout an area.
A premise to begin with is "Who are their neighbors?" Wild Turkey and deer have a high affinity for each other, partly because of habitat similarities, and partly because of the symbiotic alert relationship between the two. Should you find a large number of bobcat, fox and coyote tracks, instead of deer and turkey tracks, you need to look for a more desirable area for large numbers of turkey.
Turkey are highly mobile, their usual home range is about 2.5 square miles in area. Even though you find a roost tree, it is not likely that the same birds will always return to the same tree night after night. A good roost tree may not roost birds some nights at all, due to the birds traveling to a nearby area, that might be just as suitable for roosting.
Look for regular use trails. Birds in an area tend to be habitual in their preference for travel. Gullies, sand washes, with lots of cover nearby, as well as sandy crossing areas, are great places to look. Landing and take-off spots to cross rivers and streams are likely habitual haunts. Heavy cover, roost trees and water courses near corn fields should all be examined.
At sundown, approach roost trees with binoculars to spot birds, and approach no closer than 75 yards. Quietly watch for birds going to roost. You should look to locate your hunting position near designated roost trees. When you do find good roost trees, stay away from these roosts until the season opens.
During mating season, Wild Turkeys will form large, heterogeneous, flocks in roost trees. When they leave these roosts, Tom's usually will gobble to attract hens for mating. In Wild Turkey talk, when Toms gobble, hens are expected to "Come-A-Running!"
After leaving the roost, Tom's will go directly to live hens, and they will be difficult to call to your decoys or location, until all hens have been serviced by Toms. Toms will gobble more often when hens are scarce. Large, older, dominant competing Toms will chase off younger, smaller Toms and Jakes. These birds will often form into bachelor flocks of small Toms, Jakes, and two year olds. These birds are easily callable. When hens disappear after mating, they go to nest to lay eggs, this is a great opportunity for the hunter to attract the hormone charged Toms.
A Tom's gobbling attitude is their vulnerability during spring hunting. When hens don't respond to gobbles, Tom's will come looking for the source of hen clucks, chirps and putts that you make while calling.
Hens and poults will form into large, gender specific, highly social flocks for fall and winter. Hens and Poults will respond to high pitched calls and whistles, looking to build larger flocks. Calling is highly effective when using high pitched yelps, chirps, and the high pitched whistle of poults.
Toms form gender specific flocks in the fall and winter, but groupings are smaller. They are somewhat responsive to calling, but, the best response seems to happen if their flock gets broken up. Calling them to regroup after break up, is an effective tactic that works best in heavy cover. This tactic is not recommended when cover is sparse, (ex western states) especially when visibility through cover is greater than 20-30 yards.
Excerpted from Wild Turkeyin Colorado and the Central Plains by J. Michael Geiger. Copyright © 2015 J. Michael Geiger. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: The Western Turkey Species, 1,
TURKEY SPECIES, 1,
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MERRIAM'S AND RIO GRANDE WILD TURKEY, 3,
TURKEY GENDER DIFFERENCES, 4,
WILD TURKEY COMMON CHARACTERISTICS, 8,
LOCATING TURKEY – SCOUTING, 9,
CHAPTER 2: How to recognize good Wild Turkey country, and hold your Wild Turkey where you want them, 12,
FOOD PLOTS AND HABITAT DEVELOPMENT, 14,
CROPS TO PLANT, 16,
PREDATOR CONTROL, 18,
CHAPTER 3: Where and how to find Wild Turkeys, 20,
FINDING WILD TURKEYS, 20,
WHEN YOU FIND AN AREA TO HUNT, 22,
CHAPTER 4: HUNTING TECHNIQUES - Lets go Hunting!, 24,
CALLING COMMUNICATION, 26,
TYPES OF CALLS, 27,
CHAPTER 5: Harvesting a Wild Turkey – Now that he is here, what do you do?, 32,
FALL HUNTING PRACTICES, 33,
HARVEST METHODS, 34,
AIM YOUR SHOTGUN/ PATTERN YOUR SHOT, 35,
KNOW YOUR TOOLS – SIGHT IN YOUR SHOTGUN, 36,
KNOW YOUR TOOLS – SIGHT IN BOW AND ARROWS, 37,
PRACTICAL PROBLEM, 39,
CHAPTER 6: CLOTHING, WHAT TO WEAR, 41,
DRESS APPAREL AND BLINDS, 41,
ULTRA VIOLET NEUTRLIZATION, 41,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, 47,