The hybridization of western wild turkeys makes killing a pure Grand Slam difficult.
Wild turkeys move. They roam. They don’t stay put in one place – especially jakes and young hens during the annual dispersal. This phase sends them on a kind of walkabout. Tracking studies have shown range can shift dramatically. A big part of wild turkey restoration around the country relied on this fact. Put birds in one place with trap-and-transfer efforts, and each year they’ll likely extend their range as young turkeys (and older move) during the breeding phase, late winter dispersal or to find food at any time.
Easterns. Osceolas. Rio Grandes. Merriam’s. Kill all four and you’ve got your Grand Slam. Kill a Gould’s and that’s a Royal Slam. Add an Ocellated and you’ve got your World. But this is about stateside American wild turkeys – and their hybridization. (Pure strain Gould’s live in the northern Mexico mountains of course, and yes trap-and-transfer efforts have brought them over the border line into the southwestern U.S. too. But I digress, turkey buds.)
Case in point: Last year's Nebraska spring turkey season we filled a bunch of tags with the help of good buddy and guide Doug Stults. Individual gobblers hanging in the cool garage exhibited physical characteristics of Rio Grandes, a few Merriam’s and one even looked like an Eastern wild turkey. Some, at least visually, looked the look of hybrids – combinations of Rios and Easterns, and/or Rios and Merriam’s and so forth.
Kill a pure Eastern wild turkey back east? You bet. Tag an Osceola gobbler south of the so-called northern intergrade area where Easterns and Osceola turkeys hybridize? Yes – especially if you hunt way down in southern Florida. Out west is where it gets a little tricky.
When people ask if I’ve killed a wild turkey Grand Slam, I say yep, with a tempered ego most times because turkey hunting is often a “we” proposition. Credit my dad first who took me Pennsylvania turkey hunting at age 12. That hooked me. A big share of the credit also goes to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and state wildlife agency conservation efforts during the late 20th Century and beyond for restoring and maintaining nationwide populations. Factor in kindly landowners who granted hunting permission along the way, and guides who pointed me in the direction of turkeys. Let’s not forget a tolerant family either. Well, you get the idea . . .
Truth is, if you build up enough turkey hunting industry contacts, write and edit about this great game bird for a living, and hunt enough states from Maine to California each year (spring and fall), you’ll likely have the four Grand Slam subspecies in front of your gun or bow – including hybrid forms. I still have to wonder how many of those western Rios and Merriam’s had just a little hybridized blood in them. Maybe it doesn’t matter? All wild turkeys are trophies and you can’t eat the statistics. Still the NWTF's record keeping system does offer an account of the kinds of turkeys (age class, etc.) in a region – and it’s cool to read all those turkey stats. Still . . .
Texas Rios share the same state with Easterns (eastern Texas), and some hybridization is inevitable. Oklahoma boasts three subspecies, including the inevitable breeding interactions.
Rios are said to live in California’s central coast, and they do – but on one hunt there we glassed a big strutter proudly fanning the snow-white tail tips of a Merriam’s bird. “Oh sure, we get a few,” the guide said, more interested in getting us a wild turkey than any pure subspecies bird.
In Washington state it’s said you can kill an Eastern, Rio and Merriam’s, but again, how many are hybridized?
Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.