Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 4

October, 1940


By Russell K. Grater,
Junior Park Naturalist,
Boulder Dam National Recreational Area.

Probably no nation has ever been blessed with such a wide variety and abundance of wildlife as has the United States. Certainly no nation endowed with a wildlife population of a comparable nature has outstripped us in our destruction of these wonderful resources during the past 75 years. One by one some of our most important wildlife species have slipped from our national scene and into oblivion, never to return. Very famous at one time and still retained on the official state seal of California is the huge grizzly bear of the Sierra Nevadas - now only a legend in national parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia. Gone also are the Merriam's Elk of the Southwest, and the Audubon's Bighorn of the Great Plains badlands. The buffalo, which adorns the seal of the Department of the Interior, has faced extinction in the past, and the question of its continued existence was a serious matter not so many years ago. Found on our national seal, the bald eagle has been largely exterminated throughout much of its former range, and only the energetic labors of conservationists have kept it from joining the ranks now occupied by the passenger pigeon and the great Auk.

Almost completely overshadowed by the fate of his larger wildlife neighbors, the bird once seriously considered for our national seal has only in the past decade received the pretection and attention necessary for his continued existence. This bird is the wild turkey. A familiar sight even in our grandfather's day, the fate that befell this finest of game birds is too well known to repeat. An outcast on the road to extinction, it finally received the attention it merited. While the turkey has now become an important species in the conservation plans of several states, and is found in quantity on some of the nation's wildlife sanctuaries, it seems a bit strange that of all the various national parks and monuments, it was only recently that such an area contained this bird. It was not until the establishment of such parks as Great Smoky Mountains, in North Carolina and Tennessee; and Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky, that the turkey finally attained a rank of major importance in the areas under National Park Service jurisdiction.

While other park areas are known to contain turkey, it is at Great Smoky Mountains National Park that we find them in the most encouraging numbers. From that area we learn that "the status of wild now considered very favorable. No estimate of numbers of turkeys when the National Park Service began administration of the area is available, but field observations by Service personnel indicate that the numbers of these birds have more than doubled since the land came under our jurisdiction. Our 1939 census figure of 150 birds is probably a very low estimate.

"One of the important factors placing a handicap on the comeback of the birds has been the loss of the chestnut. There is an abundance of oak acorns and occasionally a good crop of beech mast so that the food supply is thought to be adequate for as large a population as can be expected. The increase in turkeys has paralleled an increase in gray foxes and has emphasized the soundness of the Service policies in allowing natural populations to work out their adjustments without human interference.

"Wild turkeys survived their most critical period, probably the 1920's, on the relatively high and inaccessible ridge tops. In recent years they have spread to lower elevations and now are frequently seen as low as 1,500 feet elevation. Some of the birds permit observation at distances as close as 100 feet, but every effort will be made to keep them truly wild creatures. It is well known that turkeys move about considerably, and flocks in the Great Smokies have been traced to move as much as 12 miles within a few days....The birds move off the park very little at present. Mature open hardwoods, where oaks predominate, are preferred habitats. Within the park, the environment is so much more favorable that we do not expect any great number to be taken by hunters outside the park for some time."

In Mammoth Cave, the park was stocked by the State of Kentucky in 1932 with turkeys obtained from points outside the state. Some of those birds were trapped wild stock from Texas while the rest came from Iowa where they had been pen-raised. It was not until 1935 that any figures were available to indicate whether the plan to stock the area was successful. In June of that year a hen turkey with fifteen young was reported. Some weeks later this was followed by reports of a hen with eight young and one with fifteen. In 1936, a total of twenty-seven were recorded during the year, some of which may have been counted in more than one area. No other reports are available until August of 1939, when a hen turkey and eight young were seen along the Green River east of the cave. No records have been obtained since that time, thus the real status of these birds within the park is still somewhat uncertain, although it is apparent that they have become fairly well established. The time may well come when the park will be one of our best known turkey sanctuaries and this attraction may vie with the cave itself for public interest.

The situation at Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, is not so clear. Formerly abundant through the area, turkeys have been regarded in recent years as probably extinct in the park, although a few individuals may be present but unrecorded. At Jamestown Island, in Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia, Biologist O. B. Taylor reported seeing a few turkeys, but their status was not defined.

Only a few of our national monuments are known to contain turkey, and, of these, the residency of the birds in some areas is not yet established. In the West, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, is undoubtedly of primary importance as a turkey sanctuary. Until 1932, hunting was allowed in the monument prior to its assignment to the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Lacking a permanent custodian, little could be done to actively protect turkeys until 1934. In September of 1937, Custodian C. G. Harkins reported that "indications of the Merriam Turkey nesting within the boundaries of the monument are very evident. They range in and out of the boundary on the north, but, on the South Mesa, they stay inside throughout the year. The poults reach about one-fourth grown in July, as a flock was observed the latter part of July along the west boundary consisting of nine poults and the hen". There are no records of any nesting birds in the monument since that time although flocks of yearling hens and young gobblers were seen both in 1939 and 1940. The latest estimate of turkeys from the area (1939) was 50.

Turkeys have also been recorded at Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona, but due to its small size the monument is of restricted importance as a turkey sanctuary. However, it is surrounded by a wild turkey refuge and thus should maintain on fairly constant population, although contributing little in the way of breeding grounds.

A rather unusual situation exists in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, as regards turkeys. For several years there has been agitation to introduce these birds along the South Rim of the canyon in areas of a suitable nature. Studies were made by the author in 1935-36 to make sure that turkeys actually existed at one time in that area, in order to justify their reintroduction. Much conflicting data were compiled during these studies. Some sources of information were exceedingly vocal in their insistence that turkeys were at one time very numerous throughout the region; others were equally as sure that no such conditions ever existed and were only figments of the imagination. However, from these welter of contradictory reports, evidence tended to prove that the birds were once found along the South Rim, but probably in limited numbers. Meanwhile unforeseen events were taking place on the north side of the canyon. The Kaibab Plateau, while excellent turkey country, had never been known to contain any because of the isolated nature of the region. This is the home of the Dusky Grouse. Thus it was rather disturbing to learn that wild turkeys were being released in the national forest immediately adjacent to the park. Investigations showed that the new additions to the avian fauna of the plateau were thriving, and, from the last accounts received, a few turkeys have now been seen in the park and are apparently becoming well established. What the eventual results will be are still in the future. The effects, if any, upon the Dusky Grouse will be watched with interest. In the meantime, Grand Canyon finds itself with the unusual situation of turkeys being established on the north rim where they should not be found, and not present on the south side of the canyon where their presence would meet with approval.

Years of study at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, produced the conclusion that turkeys were once found in the park area, and suggestions that the birds be reintroduced have met with park approval.

At Mesa Verde, as well as in other southwestern areas, the turkeys are the Merriam's Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami). Those found in the eastern parks and monuments are the Eastern Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris).

It has taken years to establish parks and monuments in which the wild turkey can find refuge and propogate its kind. Now only a museum piece in many parts of the country, the return of this king of game birds to his former abundance in specially designated sanctuaries established and maintained by both state and federal agencies seems assured. The time is rapidly approaching when a visitor to these areas will be able to include in his collection of wildlife memories the picture of a truly wild turkey, head high, keenly alert, and poised for a speedy retreat into the cover of his forest home. Such a memory will occupy in the onlooker's mind a niche reserved for the best creations of Nature.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005