Today, you are likely to see wild turkeys in just about any habitat in Nebraska – woodland, prairie, farmland, wetland, and even urban backyards! But, that has not always been the case. Grab a spoonful of mash potatoes, a forkful of stuffing, or a sporkful of cranberries as we discover the journey of the wild turkey.
Our story begins in the days before European settlers arrived in North America. At this time, North America was home to six different sub-species of turkeys:
- Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) found throughout the eastern United States;
- Rio Grande Wild Turkey (Melagaris gallopavo intermedia) found in the south-central plains;
- Osceola (Melagaris gallopavo osceola) found in southern Florida;
- Merriam’s (Melagaris gallopavo merriami) of the mountain regions of the southwest;
- Gould’s (Melagaris gallopavo mexicana) of northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona and New Mexico; and
- Gallopavo (Melagaris gallopavo gallopavo) formally found in Mexico; now extinct.
When Spanish explorers first came to North America, they returned to Europe with several Gallpavo turkeys from Mexico which were then domesticated. Then, when European settlers came to America, they brought these domesticated turkeys with them. Today’s domesticated turkeys in the United States are actually relatives of these transcontinental birds!
Populations of Wild Turkeys plummeted almost immediately upon the arrival of European settlers. With habitat loss and unregulated, year-round hunting, Wild Turkeys were extirpated (eliminated) from 18 of the 39 states which they historically found. Wild Turkeys were extirpated from Nebraska around 1915.
Initial attempts to reintroduce Wild Turkeys included releasing domesticated birds into the wild. Nearly 330,000 domesticated birds were released. Not surprisingly, these attempts did not work.
What did work (rather well) was trapping Wild Turkeys in other areas and releasing them in extripated areas. In 1959, 28 Merriam’s turkeys from South Dakota were released in the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. By the early 1960’s, this population has grown from the initial 28 birds to nearly 3,000 birds! This successful reintroduction lead to the release of about 500 Rio Grande turkeys in the early 1960’s in south central Nebraska. Several other releases occurred throughout the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
Today, Nebraska’s Wild Turkey population is healthy. So, as you drive to Grandma’s house for a bite of pumpkin pie, or to Aunt Matilda house for a mouthful of green bean casserole, be on the lookout for Nebraska’s largest birds – the Wild Turkey!