Wild turkey populations grow, push across the state

Watching a wild turkey fly into a large fir tree is a jaw-dropping experience. These are big birds and they run across the ground, neck outstretched, wings beating hard and finally lift into the air. They reminded me of some overstuffed vultures we saw in a field in Spain one morning. They never did get off the ground. The wild turkeys I was watching and trying to photograph were being introduced at one of our military installations. It was an experiment to see if they would survive and thrive on this side of the state. That was a long time ago and while reports of sightings straggled in for several years, the birds didn’t take to our wet climate.

More to their liking are the wide open spaces in Texas. An early-morning sighting is one of those picture-memories that sticks in your mind. We started birding Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just as the sun was breaking over the horizon. Our vehicle slowly followed the narrow, dirt road that winds through the refuge. The first glimpse of wild turkeys revealed several on the ground, but two or three were still roosting in the trees. That’s where they spent the night. No ground roosting for these smart birds when there are trees around. Wild turkeys are very different from their cousins who will grace Thanksgiving tables later this month. They are a challenge to hunt, and turkey hunting is popular in many parts of the country.

It’s like a well-kept secret, but we do have wild turkeys in Washington.

Their history is an interesting one. They are not a native species, but were introduced here sometime before 1913. These first releases weren’t successful and it wasn’t until 1961 that a sustainable population took hold in Stevens and Klickitat counties. As numbers increased, birds were trapped from Stevens County and transferred to other parts of the state. In 1984, the then Department of Wildlife stepped up its efforts to introduce more birds. These transplants were a mix of three different subspecies. They came from Texas, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Iowa. As the birds flourished in various parts of the state, some were trapped and moved to more areas.

Wild turkeys are thriving in the Blue Mountains and in Klickitat County. Their numbers are the greatest in oak and ponderosa pine habitats like that found in Stevens and Lincoln counties. Wild turkeys are well known in the San Juan Islands, where they are protected and almost tame. The success of the various releases have allowed for hunting and the numbers of birds taken come from both sides of the state. Most were harvested in eastern Washington, while only a small number came from the west side of the state. Almost 2,000 wild turkeys could end up as Thanksgiving dinner.

When it comes to wild turkeys, probably the best known tale concerns these birds and Benjamin Franklin. He must have hunted the birds and known them well. He considered them a more fitting symbol for our young country and had nothing good to say about the final choice, the bald eagle. While the eagles were “good-for-nothing” scavengers, the wild turkey was intelligent, fearless and a formidable opponent. I don’t think he was all that familiar with eagles, who have their own good points. The rest of Congress didn’t see it his way, and the turkey wasn’t to be our national symbol. I, for one, am quite happy with this arrangement.

I would much rather have turkey on the table this month. There is something about an eagle gracing the center of the family feast that doesn’t feel right. And if the turkey was our national symbol, eating it for dinner wouldn’t feel right either.