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Sightings of this bird in eastern Idaho increases hunting opportunities

Living the Wild Life

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All photos courtesy Bill Schiess | EastIdahoNews.com

In late December while looking for birds along the Henrys Fork of the Snake River west of Ashton, I met a flock of 17 turkeys crossing the road near the Ora Cemetery. It was a strange looking flock in a variety of colors; some black and white, while others were a dirty gray and some looking like full-blooded wild ones.

Last week, as I was returning from Ririe Reservoir after being skunked there, were these same colored, mostly black and white, and one with a lot of red, feeding along the road. Quickly, I drove to Ashton, and lo and behold, the turkeys had beat me there. I determined that there must be at least two flocks of weird colored turkeys about 40 miles apart.

So I called the supposed experts that know everything about everything that is wild: the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The nice gentleman wildlife biologist informed me that he did not know a lot about turkeys, so he would check with some of his biologists and get back to me.

Two hours later he called back with three possibilities:

First, they could be hybrids. Second, they could be escaped domestics, or third, they could be leucistic. We ruled out leucism as a cause because patches of feathers would be either pure white or the wild turkey’s natural color.

I ruled out the domestic argument because most domestics cannot fly and would have been dinner for predators looking for an easy meal. The only evidence of a dead one I have seen had been one run over by a vehicle between the Twin Bridges. I have also witnessed both flocks roosting in large cottonwoods.

Mr. Biologist and I kind of came to the conclusion that hybridization was probably the color-making factor. So I put on my researcher’s hat and started looking for the history of hybridizing or the creating of domestic turkeys because both of these flocks had ones that looked much like the domestic Narragansett turkeys. The one in the flock near the Twin Bridges has red coloring near the color of the Bourbon Reds.

It appears that in 1519, the Spanish explorers took the tasty big birds back to Europe where they domesticated, crossed and selectively bred, developing a big breasted bird that was too heavy to fly. In the 1600s, some of these turkeys were returned to America where they were crossed with the eastern wild ones to create seven domestic breeds. These were the Bronze, Black, Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Slate, White Holland, and in 1920, the Royal Palm.

Idaho does not have a native turkey. Wild turkey introductions into Idaho have been extremely successful and began in the 1980s. Three species, Merriams, Rio Grande and Eastern, have all been planted with Merriams, making up about 90 percent of the population.

Turkeys are very hard to count because of their secretive nature, but Idaho has an estimated population of over 40,000 birds. Most of these are in the Panhandle and Clearwater River Regions where the populations are exploding.

The Fish and Game have spent over 20 years experimenting with transplanting these large game birds. Transplanting wild turkeys into areas with suitable habitat has been the key to establishing and expanding populations.

Hard snowy winters are best for trapping turkeys, as they are forced to feed in groups and can be baited into the traps in larger numbers. Due to nuisance and damage problems in Northern Idaho, over 700 turkeys have been trapped and relocated since 2004. Some of these birds ended up in the Upper Snake River Valley Region.

As the populations of wild turkeys continue to increase in this region, opportunities for hunting or just observing them will increase. With these new colors showing up, we could create a new Idaho breed. Naming the ones that are almost gray could be the Snake River Dirty birds.

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