Late Fall Brings a Chance to see Wild Turkeys in Walla Walla County
By Mike Denny:
December is a month that causes some folks to remain inside, wrapped up in a blanket with a good book and a hot beverage. Then, there are those people who can’t wait to get outside to explore this great county and to discover what it offers during all kinds of inclement weather. These are a stripe of folks who despite the realities of wet, slick bare earth, bone-chilling wind cold and the white stuff up at higher elevations, think it is a fine day to get out and see some birds.
At this time of year, many of these folks are after the largest terrestrial game bird in Walla Walla County – the non-native Wild Turkey. Wild Turkeys are native to most states east of the Mississippi River into the southern Great Plains and Texas. The big bird has been liberally transplanted in the Pacific Northwest by State Fish and Wildlife departments as well as well-meaning private groups and individuals.
How big are they? These big birds average 42” long tip of bill to end of the tail feathers. They have a 53” wing span and can hurtle themselves through the air at 50 MPH. They can run at 25 MPH across all kinds of topography. Here in Walla Walla County, they lay up to 12 eggs and sit on them for 28 days.
Of the five different sub-species of turkeys, we mostly see the Rio Grande variety in this area. In November, these huge birds form into tight flocks called rafters. Rafters of 45-300 birds can be spotted in Upper Dry Creek, along Mill Creek Road, Coppei Creek drainage and along the Touchet River from Prescott to Ski Bluewood. I have seen Wild Turkeys at 6250’ in the western Blue Mountains and at 340’ in Wallula Gap out in western Walla Walla County.
Here is a fun thing about the Wild Turkey and that is all the names that it has been saddled with by us. So recently hatched young are all called poults, Sub-adult males are called jakes, sub-adult females are called jennies, adult males are called toms and adult females are known as hens.
So you get a rafter of hens, jennies and jakes that can add up to dozens of birds in late August. Wild Turkeys have superb eye sight that allows them to see three times better than the sharpest-eyed human. They are also smart in a short term memory sort of way. However, after three or so days, they forget a close call in one site and will trip back through that same area.
Besides competing with native grouse in this region, wild turkeys impact the local ecology. A rafter of 300 turkeys foraging along a stream or meadow area will leave it looking like is was rotor-tilled. They feed on animals that previously had ways of coping with native predators. Since the introduction of the Wild Turkey, small animals like salamanders, frogs, lizards, small snakes, mice, many insects and grubs have a new predator to avoid.
Where can you see wild turkeys? Drive out any of the foothill roads at late afternoon to see these big, beautiful birds as they strut and display. You’ll be glad that you bundled up and got out to see these endemic icons of North America
Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny(at)charter.net or by calling 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 509 529-0080.