Naturally Speaking “Not So Wild Turkeys”

Dave Hallock

Seeing a wild turkey can be a highlight of anyone’s outing. Generally, their movement as they run away from you catches the eye, or you might hear one gobble on a spring morning. Here, they favor ponderosa pine forests, using the tall trees for roosts and feeding in forest openings for seeds, leaves and invertebrates.
They tend to be more numerous in southern and western Colorado where there is Gambel’s oak, a favorite food. Merriam’s turkey is the subspecies native to Colorado, though Rio Grande turkeys are also present along the riparian corridors on the plains, having been transplanted by the Division of Wildlife to increase hunting opportunity. Like many wildlife species, turkeys were nearly wiped out of Colorado by 1930 due to overhunting and disease, but were restored through transplants.
When Boulder County began purchasing Heil Valley Ranch for open space, turkeys were known to be present. I was involved with biological inventories on the ranch to help guide the development of a trail plan and minimize impacts as much as possible. We wanted to understand how the turkeys moved throughout the property.
We first learned as much as we could from the Heil brothers and their friends, as they knew the land inside and out. The Heils had a certain reputation to outsiders, one that had discouraged trespass over the years. The County had acquired an adjacent ranch a few years before purchasing Heil. A County crew was sent to repair the fence between the ranches.
It was a breezy day, and the hat of one of the crew members blew off onto the Heil Ranch side of the fence. He would not go get it.  Now that is a reputation.  For myself, I always enjoyed spending time with the Heil brothers, hearing their stories and gleaning what they knew about the land.
Ideally, we wanted to get some radio collars on a few of the turkeys and follow their movements. Michael Sanders, biologist for Open Space, contacted Rick Hoffman, an expert turkey and grouse researcher for the Division of Wildlife. Luck would have it. Rick had a few extra radio collars left over from another project. So we decided to proceed in capturing some turkeys and fitting them with the collars.
The first step was to get the turkeys to regularly come to one area for feed. There was a small grassy opening off of the old Red Hill road where we had seen them, so decided to start putting out cracked corn to get them “hooked on bait.”  Over the course of a week or so, we knew they were regularly coming to the site.
The next step was to set up a “cannon net” to trap some of the turkeys. This was set up on the edge of where the feed was being placed, avoiding the direction the turkeys appeared to be coming from. One side of the net is set up to be shot over the turkeys one unsuspecting morning, while the other side is tied down.
The side to be thrown has a linear set of metal weights that are shot out of small cylindrical tubes that have charges in them. Electrical fuses are run a distance back from the tubes to a central ignition that is out-of-site from the turkeys.
After setting up the cannon net one afternoon, we came back early the next morning before sunrise and waited for the turkeys. Sure enough, just after first light, about 20 turkeys came walking out of the adjacent woodland to the corn.
Rick was waiting by the ignition. After the turkeys were settled feeding there was a loud boom. The charges were set off and the net flew across the top of the turkeys and then down on them. The three of us then ran toward the net to secure the perimeter before too many of them had escaped.
Next was to take the turkeys out of the netting, one by one. About 12 were remaining. We had only three radio collars. For the rest it was blood samples and gathering other information on age, sex and condition – kind of like a physical.
The Division was interested in the origin of the turkeys. They had no transplant records for this area, so they wanted to compare the DNA with turkeys from the north and south. Taking the turkeys out of the netting and conducting the analysis was a three- person process.
One person would work the turkey to the edge of the netting and then get their arms around the animal. We learned quickly that the turkeys were very good at the old “wing to the groin” movement, so you had to wrap both arms around the wings and keep the head low and away. The second person would put a towel over the head to calm the animal down. The third person would take blood, conduct the physical and put on a collar.
With the collars on, it was time to begin tracking the animals. This was old technology compared to what is used today. Directional antennas were used to take a bearing, with at least three readings performed for triangulation. Intensity of the beeping from the receiver gave a clue to closeness to the animal. Weekly searches were made for the collared turkeys. You don’t want to try to find the bird (get a visual) as that will likely move them and influence the information.
Now when you get a signal over several weeks that does not move, you wonder about the well-being of the animal. Not long after we had begun, this happened to one of the turkeys. We worked on getting closer to the signal and when it was loudest we started looking around. Eventually we saw a mound of vegetation, needles and dirt on the ground. We cleared some of it away to find a partially eaten bird.
Our conclusion was the bird had been killed and cached by a mountain lion. Over the next two months the same thing occurred with the other two collared animals. There was a lion working over this herd. So much for the study. We had gleaned a little information, but not for a long enough time to get a better picture of their seasonal movements.
April nature happenings in the Nederland area follow.
Bird species returning from the south include common snipe, band-tailed pigeon, broad-tailed hummingbird (end of the month), red-naped and Williamson’s sapsuckers, tree swallow, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warbler (end of the month), common crackle, fox sparrow, and song sparrow (sometimes they arrive in March and a few may even overwinter).
Late April is the peak time for great horned owls to hatch.
Mammals tend to be emerging or moving. Snow level permitting, elk will begin a movement from their winter to transitional range. Chipmunks and ground squirrels may be seen during periods of mild weather. Black bears are emerging from dens in March and April; their favorite foods at this time of year are vegetation and carrion. The peak time for bobcat young to be born is April and May. Mink breed from late February until early April. Long-tailed weasel litters are born in April and May.
Butterflies that overwinter as adults, such as mourning cloaks, tortoiseshells and commas, may appear during periods of mild weather.
Pasque flowers may be found blooming on south-facing hillsides if the weather is mild enough.
March and April are prime time for hearing the calls of our small forest owls: northern pygmy-owl, northern saw-whet owl and boreal owl.