DENVER, CO -- Colorado's wild turkey lovers have something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. There are more wild turkeys living in Colorado than at any time before.
Once nearly wiped out in the United States, wild turkeys have made an impressive comeback thanks to efforts of state game and fish agencies and non-profit sportsmen's groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation.
In Colorado, the Division of Wildlife began working on strategies to increase the turkey population in the early 1980s. Since then, turkeys have been released, or colonized on their own, into most of the available habitat in the state. Wild turkeys now live in 53 of the state's 63 counties. Colorado's turkey program ranks among the most successful species conservation efforts in the agency's history.
"Right now we have more wild turkeys in more places in Colorado than ever occurred here historically," said Ed Gorman, small game manager for the Division of Wildlife. "The success of turkeys in Colorado is primarily due to their adaptability and high reproductive capability."
Turkeys were plentiful in the North America at the time the Pilgrims landed, but over-harvest and habitat loss nearly wiped out America's wild turkey population by the early 1900s. Today, wild turkeys are once again abundant across the nation due to modern turkey management programs like the DOW's.
"Wild turkeys can be found in areas where they did not occur as recently as five years ago, said Gorman. "This has created new hunting opportunities for sportsmen."
On November 10, the Colorado Wildlife Commission voted to allow over-the-counter turkey hunting licenses on private land for all but three management units (91, 92 and 96) east of Interstate 25. The change goes into effect in 2011. According to the International Hunter Education Association, turkey hunting is the fastest-growing form of hunting in the United States.
Colorado is home to two subspecies of wild turkey: the native Merriam's and the Rio Grande, which was introduced to the state in 1980. The Merriam's wild turkey is primarily found in open meadows and in ponderosa, oak brush and pinion juniper stands in mountainous zones west of Interstate 25. The Rio Grande species inhabit cottonwood and riparian areas adjacent to agricultural lands in the eastern portion of the state.
"Wild birds are cunning, wary birds," Gorman said. "They have excellent eyesight and are capable of flying for short distances at speeds up to 50 mph and running at speeds up to 25 mph to escape predators. These characteristics have been bred out of the game-farm raised birds and commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving dinner."
Wild turkeys mate in the early spring. Courtship usually begins while turkeys are still flocked together in wintering areas. Males attract females through a variety of calls, struts and displays including fanning their tail feathers.
After mating, the hens begin searching for a nest site and laying eggs. In most areas, nests are found in a shallow dirt depression, surrounded by moderately woody vegetation that conceals the nest.
Hens lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs during a two-week period, usually laying one egg per day. She will incubate her eggs for about 28 days, occasionally turning and rearranging them until they are ready to hatch.
A newly-hatched flock must be ready to leave the nest within 12 to 24 hours to feed. Young turkeys, known as poults, eat insects, berries and seeds, while adults will eat anything from acorns and berries to insects and small reptiles. Turkeys usually feed in early morning and in the afternoon.