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I took a walk in the woods along the Stanislaus River the other day and ran into a small flock of wild turkeys. I have been spotting turkeys there as well as seeing them in the foothills on both sides of the Central Valley for about 20 years and wondered how widespread they were. In checking both online and with experts at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, I have determined that turkeys are actually quite plentiful in the golden state.

Prior to about 1960 there were virtually no wild turkeys in California. Attempts to establish them had been made earlier but had not been successful. There are five different sub-species of wild turkey in the U.S.: Eastern, Osceola, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and Rio Grande. In 1959 the experts switched to using Rio Grande Turkeys in their stocking programs. Lo and behold, the Rio Grande birds seemed ideally suited for California’s oak studded foothills. Turkey populations took off and there are now at least one million wild turkeys strutting around California. They are so numerous that now the state provides for both a Spring and Fall hunting season. Adult wild turkeys are between 10 and 20 pounds and are prolific foragers. They are omnivorous birds that eat acorns, seeds grains, insects and even small reptiles and amphibians.

Turkeys have been part of American history since prehistoric times. When Spanish explorers got here in the early 1500s they found that the Native Americans had domesticated turkeys in the American Southwest. A visit to the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park wouldn’t be complete without seeing dioramas of the Anasazi and their domesticated turkeys. Naturally we all recall reading about how wild turkeys were a part of the first Thanksgiving celebrations celebrated by the early English settlers in New England. Many of us have heard the story that Ben Franklin preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as our national bird. In a letter to his daughter in 1885, Franklin described the wild turkey as being more noble than the eagle and more deserving of being our national symbol.

Take a visit to Bass Pro or one of the other large outdoor emporiums and you will find a plethora of products designed for hunting or photographing wild turkey. There are camouflage blinds for you to hide in, decoys to place in front of the blinds, and calls to lure the wild turkeys in close. There is camouflage clothing to make you invisible and trail cameras to help you select a great hiding place. If you are lucky enough to get one, a wild turkey might just be the centerpiece for your Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t know about you, but wild turkey sounds pretty good for Thanksgiving dinner. Throw in some mashed potatoes and gravy and you’re all set. I’m going shopping to get some new decoys.

Until next time, Tight Lines.


Don Moyer is a longtime Central Valley resident and avid outdoorsman. He contributes occasional columns.