Coexisting with California’s Wild Turkeys

By Tom Batter, Wildlife Investigations Lab Scientific Aid

Two turkeys feed in a residential area.  Photo credit Mark Meshriy

Two turkeys feed in a residential area. Photo credit Matt Meshriy.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a wide-ranging upland game bird of North America.  There are five distinct subspecies of turkey, four of which have been transplanted into California at one time or another.  This includes the Eastern (M.g. silvestris), Rio grande (M.g. intermedia), Merriam’s (M.g. merriami), and Gould’s (M.g. mexicana) wild turkey. Today the most common subspecies found in California are the Rio grande and the Merriam’s varieties.

Wild turkeys were first introduced into California on Santa Cruz Island in 1877 by private ranchers (although there may be evidence that a turkey species existed in California as recently as the Pleistocene epoch).  Ranchers released these turkeys into the wild to have a supply of game birds readily available.  Throughout the early 20th century, introductions occurred several more times without a lasting effect.

The California Fish and Game Commission first purchased birds from Mexico in 1908 and released them into the San Bernardino Mountains.  Over twenty additional turkeys were farm-raised for future game-stocking purposes.  Between 1928 and 1951 these farm-raised birds continued to be released until the program’s termination due to lack of success.  During these twenty-three years, only three populations were successfully established.

It wasn’t until after 1959 that turkey populations began to take flight. A new management tool aided the propagation of the wild turkey in California.  The cannon-net trap was developed around this time, which increased trap-relocation feasibility and efficiency.

The rocket net is set over the food plot, ready to capture turkeys at the push of a button.  Photo credit M. Meshriy.

The cannon-net is set over the food plot, ready to capture turkeys at the push of a button. Photo credit M. Meshriy.

The cannon-net trap – a close relative of the “rocket net” – was utilized to increase wild turkey populations for sporting purposes in California.  Ironically, today cannon nets are typically used to catch and relocate turkeys that present problems for landowners, farmers, golf courses, and airports, among others.

The WIL recently took part in such a capture-relocation.  Homeowners in a rural residential area near Elk Grove contacted CDFW for help with a nuisance turkey situation.  CDFW officials assessed the situation and determined that relocating the turkeys to public wildlife areas was the best option. Factors considered by CDFW officials include: feasibility and probable success of the trapping effort, the safety of the public, the proximity to a suitable release site, and the availability of appropriately trained staff.

Turkeys are very vigilant creatures.  Living in a group puts more eyes on potential threats, and they will scatter at the slightest indication of danger.  So how do we lure turkeys in?  The answer is through a healthy dose of patience.

The first step is to determine where the turkeys in question go at certain times of the day.  Once their travel patterns can be predicted, bait is placed in a spot that is favorable to them as well as for the net and cannon — a cardboard mockup at this stage.  Bait is set for up to a week or more so the turkeys become aware of the food plot and habituated to the area. Once the flock takes to the bait, the real cannon and net are substituted for the fakes, the rocket is charged and ‘live’, and a waiting game begins.

A group of hens feed on the food plot in front of the rocket net.  This is a prime capture opportunity.

A group of hens feed on the food plot in front of the rocket net. This is a good capture opportunity.  Photo credit M. Meshriy.

Once there are enough birds on the bait to make processing them worthwhile (rarely is a second shot possible), and no birds are in danger of harm from the net, the cannon can be fired.  Field crew members quickly sprint to the birds under the net and physically restrain them to prevent injury.  Turkeys are transported back to the lab in specially designed carrying boxes.

WIL Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers gets a transport box ready while Bob "Turkey Bob" and Upland Game Biologist Levi Souza remove captured turkeys from the netting.  Photo credit M. Meshriy.

WIL Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers gets a transport box ready while Turkey Capture Specialist Bob “Turkey Bob” Klotz and Upland Game Biologist Levi Souza remove captured turkeys from the netting. Photo credit M. Meshriy.

When they arrive at the WIL, the turkeys receive a health assessment, a leg band and blood is collected in order to test for disease.  Once they are pronounced healthy, the turkeys are released into their new home. CDFW’s policy is to only release turkeys in areas away from human habitation, where there are already established populations and where they will be available for public enjoyment.

For more information on how to avoid conflicts with wild turkeys, click here.

For more information on the wild turkey’s life history, click here.

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