Writing on the Wild Side #12 – Come See Gobblers the Walla Walla Way
By Mike Denny: October is now history and we have all moved onto November. It is said that when one door closes another opens and so it is here in the spectacular Walla Walla Valley. The door is shutting on the autumn season, fall songbird migration, the last of the wild blooming flowers and warm sunny days and slowly opening a door to crisp winter days and colder nights. Tis the season that brings a whole change in local beauty across this wonderful Walla Walla Valley. This is the time to get outside and enjoy the cool air and the many great opportunities this area has to offer. One such opportunity is the foot path from Eastgate Lions Park along Mill Creek that proceeds east to the Walla Walla Community College and continues on to Rooks Park. Not to mention all the bicycle routes and country roads that present the true beauty of this wonderful valley.
Some may think of turkeys as something to feast on around Thanksgiving or to hunt, but wild turkeys are so much more. This is a very different bird from the large breasted “dinner fare” that we purchase to eat from grocery stores. This valley has a large wild turkey population that is still expanding.
Wild turkeys first were brought into this region in the early 1950s and released at several locations in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. These first birds were members of the Merriam’s turkey race from the eastern sea board along the Atlantic Ocean. These were the sub-species that were part of the first Thanksgiving at the Jamestown colony. The sad truth was this eastern turkey did not take well here in the Blue Mountain country. Hot, dry summers, low humidity and some long cool springs all contributed to the demise of these introduced turkeys.
The persistent Washington Department of Fish and Game decided to work with a decidedly different wild turkey to see if these “tougher” birds would do better in this region. In the mid 1960’s, late 1970’s and early 1990’s they brought in a wild turkey from Texas and the desert southwest known as the Rio Grande or Rios. These big birds arrived and their population exploded. By the late 1990’s there were birds all over the region. I have found these big turkeys all the way up around Table Rock at 6250’. By 2003 I saw them in every watershed in the northern Blue Mountains. By 2004 we were locating flocks of over 300 turkeys up many of the drainages in the western Blue Mountains. There was even a small flock of six birds located at the Twin Sisters in Wallula Gap. So what are these big game birds doing to the local ecology? They are exploiting it and competing with our areas native grouse. They have also presented a new hunting opportunity for folks as well as wild predators. To hear some talk that the reason wolves swarmed out of Idaho and into the Blue Mountains was to feast on all the thousands of wild turkeys.
Wild Turkeys have outstanding vision, about 3x more acute than our vision. They are smart to a point with great short term memory (about three days). They are gregarious and have upwards of 12 young. They are great parents and will defend their chicks. The wild turkey’s close relative is the vulture and that my friends is the truth.
While you are here in this beautiful valley go on your own turkey trot and see how many you can find. Areas to check on for turkeys are Mill Creek Rd. east of Walla Walla. Look along HWY 12 just east of Lowden on the south side of the highway. South of Dayton along the road to Bluewood Ski resort and along Touchet River around Waitsburg. In late September these turkeys form large flocks andmarch along in big groups often single file stretching out for hundreds of feet. Watch for the tom’s long beards dangling from their chests. The females are called hens or jennies and these flocks are about 70% females and 30% males. A good bird to watch and enjoy.
Remember Walla Walla has to be seen to be believed.
Past President of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society
All photos by Mike Denny.