Thursday, December 15, 2016
WILD TURKEYS THRIVE FOLLOWING SUCCESSFUL REVIVAL EFFORT - The San Diego Union Tribune
By Ernie Cowan
They are big, elusive and exciting to see, and what is more appropriate as the subject of the November column than the wild turkey?
Longtime San Diego birders will tell you that there were no turkeys here until the 1990s when a group of sportsmen teamed up with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to introduce 293 birds into the county.
Birds were imported from other areas and released near Julian, Ramona and south of Interstate 8.
It was love at first sight for the birds, and today the population is estimated at upwards of 30,000 extending from the Mexican border to Riverside County and from the avocado groves of Fallbrook to the desert fringe of East County. I even had a reader recently tell me he had one on his feeder in eastern Oceanside, and I get the credit for the only verified sighting of a wild turkey in Imperial County, after taking a photograph of one in Carrizo Creek north of Plaster City.
Like quail and dove, the turkey is a game bird and a popular species for hunters in the spring and fall.
Wild turkey numbers dropped severely in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, but conservation efforts like the one in San Diego, where birds were introduced — or reintroduced to former ranges — have resulted in species numbers continuing to increase nicely in many regions.
When you see a wild turkey, you won’t confuse it for any other bird. Standing over 3 feet high and weighing more than 20 pounds, they tend to stand out in the grasslands, oak woodlands and pine woods they seem to prefer.
From a distance, the turkey appears as a large, plump, dark bird, but in direct sunlight or up close, they are layered with beautifully colored feathers that flash iridescent bronze and green in the right light. There are white wing bars, and the tail feathers are tipped with light brown or white. Males have a long beard of course bristles extending several inches from the chest.
They have long necks with bare skin on the head and neck that can sport bright colors from red and blue to gray and white.
Turkeys are not big fliers. They do roost for safety in tall trees at night and fly down at first light to feed, but they spend most of the day walking as they forage for food. If startled, they will explode into flight, but they prefer to quickly vanish by fading into thickets of brush.
Some of the more popular areas to spot a wild turkey are on rural roads around Ramona and Julian and Lake Henshaw, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Warner Springs, Palomar Mountain State Park, Laguna Mountains, Lake Morena and on the trails of the Santa Ysabel Nature Preserve.
The turkey is a non-migratory resident bird that forages in flocks, feasting on acorns, pine nuts, native seeds and berries along with the occasional lizard, snail, beetle or insect.
Turkey nesting begins in the spring when tom (male) turkeys perform an elaborate mating ritual that includes gobbling, strutting and fanning their tail feathers in a beautiful peacocklike display. Once mating occurs, female birds scratch out a shallow bowl on the ground that can be lined with leaves or grass, but are very informal. Nests may contain anywhere from four to 17 eggs, and they are often hidden under brush piles or in dense thickets of vegetation.
Once chicks hatch, they look like fuzzy little softballs, often gathering into large groups rolling along behind several hens. The females feed the hatchlings for a few days until they learn how to fend for themselves.
The male turkeys don’t take part in raising the chicks, and predation from coyotes and bobcats takes a high toll on the young birds.
For bird-watchers, the 1990s introduction of wild turkeys in San Diego County is a true success story. Today, our backcountry grasslands, oak woodlands and pine forests can be filled with the gobbling of birds, or you can enjoy a surprise encounter with a strutting flock of toms as you hike a mountain trail.
Spring will bring new flocks of turkey chicks that will delight any bird-watcher.
Put on your hiking boots, hang your binoculars around your neck, grab the camera and head out to add one more bird to your life list.
Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at BirdandErnie@gmail.com.