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9 Gobblers on Lower Elk Valley Road
Looking Back - John Kinnear“Everything in moderation is okay except wild turkey’ – Evel Knievel (daredevil)
What Evel Knievel was talking about is a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey that is 80 proof and would probably knock the feathers off a real wild turkey. Apparently a distillery executive from Kentucky took some warehouse samples with him on a wild turkey shoot in 1940 and next year his friends all asked if he had brought along any more of that ‘wild turkey whiskey’ and the brand name was born.
In Alberta wild turkey is all the rage. The fowl type not the drinking type. Of all the bird fowl that exist in this province I would have thought that “mellagris gallopavo merriami” would be the unlikeliest to thrive in increasing numbers.  But thrive they have.  Since their introduction to the Cypress and Porcupine Hills in 1962 the populations of this amazing bird have taken off, literally.  Road Watch in the Pass, the non-profit organization dedicated to increasing human and wildlife safety along Highway #3, reported 40 birds east of Bellevue November 28th on their new face book site.  Sightings of large flocks have been noted many times out around Lee Lake and as far west as West Coleman and on into the Elk Valley. Their phenomenal transplant success led to the introduction of an Alberta Fish and Wildlife hunting season in 1991.  In 2005 they issued 200 tags for the birds whose season runs from March through May.  
Down south of us in the good old US of A the wild turkey is much more common.  The Pilgrims reportedly brought domesticated wild turkeys with them in 1620 when they landed at Plymouth.  Interestingly enough the Spaniards brought domesticated wild turkeys back to Europe in the mid sixteenth century from Mexico. They then spread from Spain to France and later to England where they became the centerpiece of feasts of the well-to-do. So the pilgrims brought domesticated turkeys not realizing that a larger close relative already existed in the forests of Massachusetts. Go figure!
Wild turkey hunting stateside is a big deal and a 2005 statistic indicated there were an estimated seven million birds in North America. This is amazing considering they were almost extirpated out of most areas by the 1940’s.
There are six subspecies of gobblers, each with subtle differences in coloration, habitat and behaviour. Eastern Canada has the Eastern Wild Turkey (well duh!) while the United States has five other versions including the Florida, Rio Grande, Gould’s, South Mexican and Merriam’s. The subspecies in the Pass and Elk Valley areas are Merriam’s and range throughout the Rocky Mountains all the way down to New Mexico.
The large gregarious males, called toms, are a remarkable site to behold.  When a gobbler is excited his head turns blue, when ready to fight it turns red.
The males have a snood which is a fleshy bump on the dorsal surface of the beak. They are unique to turkeys.
This fleshy mass can become quite large in males, up to 5 or 6 inches in length. This protuberance hangs over their bills and can be extended or contracted at will. Its purpose has been debated, however, studies have shown that wild turkey hens prefer to select long-snooded toms, and research suggests that such toms are healthier than their short-snooded counterparts.  Something about this strikes me funny but I won’t go into why.
Toms also have caruncles which are fleshy nodular masses of tissue concentrated at the base of their neck. They become flushed and bright red when they are agitated or excited and their purpose is unknown.  So a tom in mating season is a pretty spectacular sight what with the snood, caruncle and wattles all aflame and his feathers, which have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze and gold iridescence, all puffed up. Not a bird you’d want to mess with.
The males also come equipped with a pointed bony spike called a spur that sticks out the back of his leg and can be almost two inches long!  Gobblers get into some pretty nasty scraps and no doubt this spur takes its toll.   And just to round out this amazing bird’s appearance let’s throw in a beard. Yup, a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing out from the center of the breast, up to nine inches long. American turkey hunters score their birds by calculating points from three markers: the weight of the bird, the length of one of the spurs and the length of its beard.   They use all kinds of devices (naturally) to call or lure the birds close enough. The record wild turkey weighed in at over 38 pounds.
Some other terminology applied to them is also interesting. The females are known as hens, the juvenile females are called “jenny’s” and the juvenile males are called “jakes”. The chicks are called “poults” and are precocial and nidifugous. Huh?  That is to say they are relatively mature and mobile from birth and leave the nest shortly after hatching. This is critical for these young to survive and by two weeks old they can usually fly up into the trees to roost with the hens.  With the myriad of predators out there on their tail, so to speak, this ability to fly is a lot more significant than people realize. Turkeys can take off straight up and then convert quickly to horizontal flight like a harrier jet. They can put a quarter mile between you and them real fast and one bird was recorded at fifty five miles per hour.
In case you were wondering, they are for the most part fairly good eating. It is important of course to keep them moist when roasting.  Use a foil cover not a cooking bag. Don’t expect as much breast meat but it is firm and juicy and just as tasty as its domestic cousin.
So there you have it. A primer on the amazing wild turkey.  Just one more thing from humble scribe and that is a wish to all for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
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   Volume 81 - Issue 51   email:   $1.00   
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