Upland Game Birds in West Valley, Part I

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by Pat Jaquith

Merriam’s Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) 4/23/20

We have seven species of Upland Game Birds in our area: Wild turkeys; Ring-necked Pheasants; Hungarian (Gray) Partridge; Ruffed Grouse; Blue Grouse; and Chukar Partridge. As noted in discoveringmontana.com, prior to the 1950’s, upland bird hunting was not well-managed in Montana. Popular game birds were heavily hunted to the point that populations began to suffer. Starting in the ’50’s, it was recognized that limiting hunting would allow these species and their habitats to be self-sustaining and healthy. Today, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks controls and monitors hunting and harvesting upland bird species.

Originally, turkeys were native to Mexico; in the 16th century, explorers took some to Spain where they prospered, were domesticated, and spread throughout Europe. English settlers are believed to have imported them back to the western hemisphere. At one time, the population in the American east was estimated at 10 million; over-harvesting and loss of habitat due to settlement reduced their numbers to 30,000 by 1940’s. The US started a program to increase their numbers in the early 1950’s, and turkeys were introduced into Montana in a series of transplants starting in 1954. They certainly have prospered here in the valley! We see them in flocks in fields, in the woods, and in our yards–even in our gardens!! The adult Toms (male) average 48 inches in length and weigh 16.3 lbs; the hens (females) average 34 inches in length and 9.3 lb.

The tom above, along with 4 other smaller toms, spent a lot of time one spring displaying in the road where they could drag their wings (note the damaged feathers) as he turned in circles, dancing to attract the attention of 10 females that lived nearby. Below are some behaviors I’ve observed in my encounters with the Wild Turkeys.

The tom’s head is distinctive with varying red, blue, and sometimes white colors; the snood that drapes over the top of his beak; the bright red wattle under the chin, and red caruncles along the neck. Toms usually gather in their own flocks, meeting up with flocks of hens during spring mating time. At right, I had to wait for a flock of a dozen or more toms that were displaying in the road; finally they decided to wander into the grass and weeds.

Turkeys are pretty social – even with other species of birds. At left, we looked out one spring morning to see a flock showing a Peacock around the neighborhood. In April one year, we saw a tiny California Quail closely following this tom around for several days.

The tom’s feathers are iridescent, shining with many tones of russet in early morning light. The one at left is a first year bird with its first full set of feathers (10.06) The one at right on 10.25, has passed a full year and his tattered and torn feathers are being replaced. Note the new feathers growing at the ends of his wings are pushing the old feathers out. The process will continue, a few at a time, until all his wing feathers have been replaced. His tail was a ragged-looking assortment of old feathers falling out and new ones growing in.

Hens often group up and collectively tend all their chicks; this probably increases the likelihood of avoiding predators, especially foxes and coyotes. Around our house, three or four females with different-sized chicks came often one summer to drink from the water pan we filled for songbirds; then they would stroll across the yard while the chicks caught insects that they eat for their first month before starting to eat plants. Watching them chase grasshoppers is quite entertaining! We developed a habit of counting chicks and observing the number decreasing one by one- probably to a predator.

As I walked in a tall grass clearing in Pig Farm one August day, I heard a hen utter one verbal warning that triggered an explosion of chicks flying into the branches of nearby trees where they froze without uttering a sound. I guessed there were a dozen or more chicks, but I could locate only four.

The hens and nearly-grown chicks were not as social with other creatures as the toms in earlier pictures. Since turkeys aren’t very good at observing boundaries like fences around gardens, when I know they are around, I try to be vigilant. I didn’t know that a fawn was around, nor did I expect the fawn would try to herd the turkeys. But it did surprise me that the turkeys seemed completely oblivious to the fawn’s maneuvers – even when it jumped right over them!

By December, it’s pretty hard to tell the chicks from the hens or toms. Once they discovered that songbirds drop a lot of tasty bites under the suet feeders, a flock visited daily.

To see some really interesting turkey videos Skip has posted on this website, click here and here.

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