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UTAH — Once championed as a potential national bird of the United States, the turkey is far more exciting than it is typically given credit for. From its well-known tail feathers to its association with Thanksgiving, the wild version tends to go unappreciated. They are surprisingly colorful up close, with shades of green and blue mixed into their typical black or brown coloration.
Wild turkeys have five subspecies, spread all over North America down to as far south as Central America. The eastern wild turkey, Osceola wild turkey, Rio Grand wild turkey, Merriam’s wild turkey, and the Gould’s wild turkey are all found within the United States.
The Merriam’s wild turkey is the only subspecies native to Utah and was successfully reintroduced to the state in 1952. In 1984, the Rio Grande subspecies was introduced into Utah. The two can be differentiated by the coloring on the tips of tail feathers along the base of the tail. Merriam’s will have white tips, while the Rio Grande wild turkeys will have buff or tan coloration.
During the winter months, turkeys can form groups exceeding 200 individuals. Turkeys have different names based on their age. Adult males are called toms, and adult females, are hens, but as juveniles, males are jakes, and hens are jennies. Rather than the term chick, their offspring are called poults.
Turkeys are sometimes called the thunder chicken due to their tendency to respond to the sound of thunder with a gobble during the spring mating season. At night, turkeys will roost in trees to avoid predators. One hunting technique is to head out the night before and make calls such as that of an owl in an attempt to locate their roost. The hunters will set up decoys early the following day where they think the flock may land. Turkeys can see color five times better and hear four times better than humans. This is why hunters are typically decked out in camouflage from head to toe and stay as still as possible until the opportune moment.
Wild turkey hen in the winter snow. Photo: TownLift // Kevin Cody.