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Anita’s Blog – Let’s Talk Turkey


Rio Grande wild turkey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The cats were curious but kept their distance at an unexpected visitor one spring morning – a lone female turkey was just outside the fence on the strip of grass and plants that separates our land from a farm field. My husband corralled the cats safely back to our yard. I was off doing errands and missed the event.


A day later, the turkey was at the bottom of our yard at the edge of the resaca. I managed two quick photos before it flew low across the water to the other side, landing in what seemed a clumsy flurry of legs, feathers and dead branches of a fallen tree. It lifted, turned and landed on its feet, nearly camouflaged amongst the grey sticks wedged between the greenery of honey mesquites.


Rio Grande wild turkey camouflaged amongst tree branches. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Two weeks later, the turkey was close to the house; I tried for stealth, but it sensed me, jumped off the retaining wall, strutted around the lower yard, contemplated the resaca water then shifted left and stalked up the incline toward the fence with the farm field beyond. By this time, our younger cat was aware of the activity and had charged toward the moving target, swiftly putting on the breaks once he realized the size of his would-be prey.


Female Rio Grande wild turkey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Nice display of identifying tail feathers. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Far right, Rio Grande wild turkey contemplates escape options. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The turkey didn’t like the chain-link fence. It paced back and forth, the cat still a goodly distance. Suddenly the turkey lifted off; instead of clearing the fence, it executed a sharp right bank, flew over the cat, circled left around the marsh trees before landing in the recently harvested garbanzo field. I wasn’t expecting the flight pattern and didn’t even attempt photos; the cat was equally perplexed.


Rio Grande wild turkey not happy about the fence. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

What I thought was the last sighting was a couple of weeks later, in the early morning. The turkey was investigating the overgrown mixture of amaranth, guinea grass and other late summer roadside flora between our wall and the road. It scurried across into the pecan farm opposite.


We identified the turkey as Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) with help from one of our Texas Master Naturalist chapter sponsors, Tony Reisinger, Cameron County extension agent for coastal & marine resources with Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M University and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.


I told my turkey tales to a small group of Texas Master Naturalists at a rare chapter social gathering and learned that there are turkeys at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, south of Mission, in Hidalgo County. Road trip! Tram driver extraordinaire and South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalist Jani McGee gave us an exciting tour of the park, stopping so we could photograph the separate flocks, although the females with their poults were less up for a photo session than the males.


After mating season, Toms and young “Jakes” retreat to a males-only flock, wandering around separately, but not far, from the hens. The females and poults stay together until the next mating season (in early spring in southern Texas) when they all group together. Bentsen has a couple of flocks of female Rios with their chicks that we saw in the distance and a group of six males that were foraging near the tram path.


There’s a lot of wild turkey information on the internet. There are two species of wild turkeys, the North American and the ocellated. The North American species has five subspecies: Eastern, Florida (Osceola), Rio Grande, Merriam's and Gould's.


The tan or buff color of the tips on the tail feathers and upper tail coverts (feathers of the lower back, covering the base of the tail feathers) distinguish the Rio Grande wild turkey, which would be brown on an Eastern wild turkey. Rio Grande turkey body feathers generally have an overall green-coppery sheen to them. Rios have fairly long legs. In the male, their gobble is more higher pitched and warbly than that of Eastern or Osceola wild turkeys.


Tan tips of tail feathers and upper tail coverts distinguish Rio Grande wild turkey. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A tremendous amount of research and science has been applied to wild turkey land management. A couple of sources list a concise description of what Texas Rio Grande wild turkeys like in the southern region: a mixture of open grassland, traditional brush, standing water, roost trees at least 10 feet high and short grass or open dirt strutting areas – all of which need to be within a one-mile radius.


As our odd visiting female turkey was the first wild turkey we’ve seen, we wondered if it might have been someone’s pet that escaped and got lost, or if someone got tired of keeping it and dropped it off at our gate – like they do dogs. We texted our neighbor, the farmer; it wasn’t his and he’d not seen turkeys around any of the fields he farms. We thought she was gone after the pecan grove trek, but she was recently spending some time under our large fig tree – although still wary of the chain-link fence. Perhaps she temporarily escapes her owner, branching out for foraging variety. Still, like a lot of things in nature, her visits are a mystery.


The Rio Grande wild turkey range spans roughly from Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and south through New Mexico and Texas and into Northeastern Mexico, with transplanted populations in Central and Western California, Oregon and Hawaii.


Population numbers of the Rios are around a million, making it the second-most abundant turkey subspecies in the United States. In Texas, the Rio Grande has the largest population and widest range of the three-turkey subspecies found in Texas, which are the Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Eastern wild turkeys. Eastern wild turkey is the most populated with the widest distribution in North America, with numbers above five million, although, as mentioned, not in Texas.


Diet and Food

Because Rio Grande wild turkeys are so widely distributed in Texas, their diets are broad. They are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on what is seasonably available, according to Texas A&M information in this pdf: http://agrilife.org/wildlife2/files/2012/05/77906723-Rio-Grande-Wild-Turkey-in-Texas-Biology-and-Management.pdf. Their diet consists of approximately 75 percent plant matter and 25 percent animal matter over the course of a year. Plant matter includes hard mast (acorns), soft mast (blackberries and other fruits), grass and forbs. Animal matter includes insects, particularly grasshoppers, ants, beetles, spiders and snails.


A table describing important plant food items used by Rio Grande turkeys in the South Texas Plains includes many native Valley-familiar plants, like colima, granjeno, brasil, palafoxia, lantana, coreopsis, flat sedge, croton, old man’s beard, honey mesquite, false dandelion, ground-cherry, prickly pear, hackberry and the invasive buffelgrass. All but the buffelgrass are available on our land and the surrounding acreages; but just as we might be able to supply the food, we also seem to host many of a wild turkey’s predators.


Male Rio Grande wild turkeys at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park forage under a granjeno tree. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Predation

Besides legitimate hunters, adult and juvenile turkeys are prey to coyote, bobcat, raccoon, gray fox, great horned owl and opossum, according to the aforementioned AgriLife publication.

In addition, coachwhip and Texas rat snake and red-tailed hawk prey on poults and even more critters prey on the eggs in a nest, including most of the previous predators as well as nine-banded armadillo, feral pig, striped and spotted skunk and even raven.


Roosting

For roosting, the Rios like large trees (40 feet tall) with broad canopies and many horizontal limbs, like live oak, hackberry, pecan, elm and cottonwood.

Hopefully our brief visitor has found her a place in the Valley.


The wild turkey is native to North America and is the ancestor to the domestic turkey that has been introduced into Europe and Asia since the 1500s.


Websites helpful in gathering all this information include:

Agrilife.org, tpwd.texas.gov, wildlife.tamu.edu, Texas-wildlife.org, bowhuntersunited.com

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