by Tim Martin
Crouched on a mountain somewhere near Laytonville, a hunter listens to the faraway "gobble-obble-obble!" of a wild turkey -- a boss gobbler in full strut.
Taking up a box call, he begins the slow and tedious process of calling the tom in. Thousands of heartbeats, pints of sweat and a large dollop of stealth later, the bird is nearly within range.
Suddenly the gobbler stops in mid-stride. It has detected something. (An uncovered patch of skin? An exposed wedding ring? A sour note on the box call?) Before the hunter can react, the bird has disappeared in a brown blur.
Matching wits and losing to a creature endowed with a brain the size of a walnut can be humiliating. McKinleyville's Nathen Hinkle will attest to that.
"Wild turkeys are amazing birds," said Hinkle, a veteran turkey hunter. "Extremely intelligent. Especially if they've been hunted. They have excellent hearing and eyesight, and can spot a hunter's silhouette from a quarter mile away."
Hinkle explained that the best way to hunt the wild bird is to blend in with the scenery.
"Good turkey hunters use full camouflage, a face mask and gloves," said Hinkle. "They even wrap their guns in camo."
In addition to being the smartest upland game bird in the United States, the wild turkey is also the largest. An adult gobbler will sometimes weigh more than 20 pounds.
There are five subspecies of turkey in North America: Merriams, Rio Grande, Florida, Gould's and eastern. The eastern turkey is the most common subspecies.
In the early 1900s the wild turkey was hunted to very low levels in the United States. Sportsmen and various wildlife agencies tried to restore the birds with captive breeding programs, but the captive-bred birds lacked survival instincts. Predators, disease and winter-kill took their toll.
"We began to realize that what was needed were wild birds, taken from one location and moved to another," said Herb Pierce, a California Fish and Game wildlife biologist. "After that the birds began to increase in numbers."
In 1930 there were about 30,000 wild turkeys in the entire United States. That number had grown to just under 1.5 million and a half by 1973. This year, it is 4.3 million.
Hunters played an important role in the project. In the last 20 years, turkey- hunting organizations have spent $60 million to help bring back the great bird.
In California, where the wild turkey is not native, gobblers can be found in 45 counties, including Humboldt and Mendocino.
"We have planted turkeys in a wide variety of local areas," Pierce said. "We've put in basically Rio Grande stock and eastern stock. Most of the turkeys in California are from Rio Grande stock, which prefers dry country. Merriam's, an east coast bird, will tolerate a cooler, moister habitat."
Pierce estimates that 75 wild turkeys have been planted in Humboldt County over the last 20 years.
"You put the number of animals there that will make a viable nucleus for a population, and either they will expand or they don't," stated Pierce. "A dozen or so hens and a couple of gobblers make a group that is adequate for reproducing. If you put five times as many in, they may not populate any faster.
"What is significant for turkeys in Humboldt County is that because of the cooler, moister temperature during the poult season, the birds probably lose a few more youngsters, or a few more don't hatch."
The preferred habitat for wild turkey is live oak-grassland interspersions. In winter, spring and early summer, the birds feed on nuts, berries, seeds, insects and the occasional snake. In autumn, they eat a large amount of acorns.
"The oak is an extremely important tree to most wildlife species," said Pierce. "Acorns are highly nutritious. Turkeys love them, and so do wild hogs, deer and bear."
Domesticated fowl love acorns, too, and periodically a turkey will escape the confines of its cage and join the wild birds for a meal under the oaks. It sounds harmless, but it's not. Domestic birds carry diseases that can be fatal to wild toms and hens.
"Our policy is to release only wild stock, but turkeys fluctuate between being tame and wild," said Pierce. "If they come to a barnyard where there is food, they will join the other birds. And that works the other way around. It's impossible to say that all the wild turkeys in Humboldt County came from wild stock. I have to believe that a few tame birds got away."
In the early 1900s, Humboldt County was a prime location for turkey farms. Production started in the southern part of the county and the eastern edge of Humboldt Bay. There were also a large number of turkey farms in the Kneeland area. During that time, herds of turkeys were often rounded up and driven to the docks at Humboldt Bay where they were shipped to San Francisco to be processed and sold. Of those birds that evaded the watchful eye of the herd dog and shuffled off into the brush, few probably survived.
"Wild turkeys face a whole gamut of predators; mountain lions, foxes, coyotes and bobcats," Hinkle said. "Wild birds have a narrow breast; they are designed to get up and fly. A domestic bird probably wouldn't last long in the woods."
How many turkeys are roaming around in Humboldt County? No one's quite sure.
"Without going out in the woods and counting each and every bird, it's impossible to know how many turkeys there are," said Pierce. "With the turkey resource, it's word of mouth. We listen to what local hunters, ranchers, wardens and Forest Service employees say they're seeing. That gives us a rough idea of what we have."
How does one go about finding wild turkeys? Hinkle, who does most of his hunting around Ruth Lake, southern Humboldt and Redding, had an answer.
"To find turkeys you do preseason scouting," he explained. "You ask about reported sightings, look for tracks, scat (popcorn droppings) and try to locate where the birds are roosting at night.
"The best indicator is sound. If you stand on a ridge top, you can hear a turkey gobbling up to a half mile away. A loud noise in the woods, such as a car door slam, a crow call or even a gun shot will set them off. Find out where they are and call them in."
To mimic a turkey's cacophonous voice, a wide variety of devices are used. There are slate calls, box calls, snuff box calls, wingbone calls and diaphragm calls. A few clever hunters even use their own voice.
"You can become proficient with a box call within an hour or so," said Hinkle. "A mouth call might take a little longer. The best way to learn how to call turkeys is to listen to a farmer's birds.
"Turkeys are very vocal. They yelp, cluck, purr and cackle. The little pullets have a call that's named the kiki run, that they use to call their mother when they are lost."
According to Hinkle, getting started in the sport is not as expensive as one might think.
"It costs around $400 to completely outfit a turkey hunter," he said. "A gun will cost about $300, a California hunting license, $30. Add camouflage gear and ammunition and you're set."
If turkey hunting were simply about shooting birds, most hunters would probably be joining the rest of us in the frozen foods section of the supermarket, where the Butterballs are kept. There is obviously much more to the sport.
"One of the best things about turkey hunting in the spring is getting out in the hills," said Hinkle. "You're surrounded by greenery, wildflowers and great weather. It's one of my favorite times of the year."
Turkey hunting season in California takes place in both spring and fall. For both seasons you need an upland game stamp and a hunting license. This spring the season is from March 29 to May 4. The fall season starts on the second Saturday in November and runs for 30 days. n
Timothy Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University and a free-lance writer.
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents