Election Section

Wild Turkeys Have Ancient California Roots: By JOE EATON

Special to the Planet
Tuesday November 23, 2004

In his journal entry for March 23, 1856, Henry David Thoreau got to brooding about what New England had lost since it was settled by Europeans: “The nobler animals have been exterminated here—the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene [sic], wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc.” 

The turkey? What’s that doing among all those totems of wilderness? Well, “noble” might be a stretch, but the wild turkey is a bird to be reckoned with. It’s a totally different creature from feathered vegetables like the Beltsville White that are too dumb to mate without human assistance. For a glimpse into the mind of the wild turkey, hunt down a copy of Joe Hutto’s book Illumination in the Flatwoods. Hutto, a Florida-based artist-naturalist, raised a clutch of turkeys from the egg, and followed them around as they learned how to be competent turkeys. It was an education for him as well. 

I think it was a couple of years ago that I first heard of wild turkeys in Berkeley: Someone called the Northern California Rare Bird Alert to report one in a tree in Live Oak Park. Since then, they seem to have established residency. I’ve heard from one Berkeleyan who saw three hen turkeys escorting a dozen chicks in her neighborhood, and another who had a flock of 12 in his back yard.  

Whether the presence of the turkeys is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about exotic wildlife, and whether you regard the turkeys as “introduced” or “re-introduced.” It’s well known that bringing a plant or animal into an ecosystem where it did not evolve, where it may have no natural parasites or predators, can wreak all kinds of havoc. Think of the Eurasian starling, the blue gum eucalyptus, the bullfrog, the yellow star thistle, the eastern red fox. On the other hand, some naturalized creatures seem relatively benign, like the wild parrots of San Francisco. 

Determining which category the wild turkey falls in gets a little problematic. One thing that’s clear is that the Berkeley turkeys, and their comperes in the North Bay and the Coast Ranges, are the descendants of transplanted Texans. Hunters had been trying to establish wild turkeys in California since at least 1877, but with limited success. Then in the 1960s, the state Department of Fish and Game began a major introduction push using turkeys of the Rio Grande subspecies that had been trapped in the wild.  

The Texas turkeys flourished and multiplied. Today they’re in every county except San Francisco, with an estimated statewide population of 100,000. I’ve been seeing and hearing them for years around Livermore, and more recently in the North Bay. The turkeys of Marin County have joined the Feral Pigs and the Golden Gate Park Cats as regulars in the Farley comic strip. 

Clearly these birds have found the environment out here congenial—lots of acorns to eat, lots of low-branching trees to roost in. (Their impact on that environment is debatable; I’ve heard them accused of competing for resources with the native California quail.) And there’s a precedent for turkeys in California. It’s a complicated story, and I’m indebted to Don Roberson, author of Monterey Birds, for the background; you can find the full version on his website, www.montereybay.com/creagrus/turkey-in-CA. 

Turkeys, according to palaeontologist David Steadman, descended from peafowl-like ancestors that crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia tens of millions of years ago. By the Pleistocene era, the time of the ice sheets, four species existed in North America. Two are still around today: your basic wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the ocellated turkey of Mexico and Central America (M. ocellata), which you can see around the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Then there was the California turkey (M. californica), a bit smaller than M. gallopavo, whose remains have been found in the La Brea Tar Pits. 

Hildegarde Howard, the legendary authority on fossil birds who died six years ago at the age of 96, worked on californica as a UC graduate student. 

Steadman speculated that californica may have evolved from an isolated group of gallopavo that was cut off from the main population by the Mojave and Sonora Deserts. “Species” is a tricky concept when you’re dealing with fossils, anyway. Biologists define living species by their inability to breed with similar populations. But whether ancient California turkeys and eastern wild turkeys could have mated and produced fertile offspring is anyone’s guess. 

So there were turkeys in Southern California, at least, until around 10,000 years ago, when the whole La Brea fauna—mammoths, ground sloths, sabertooths, dire wolves, teratorns, dung beetles—died out. What about the rest of the state? Well, there’s one tantalizing piece of evidence: a fossil turkey femur—a thighbone—found in Potter Creek Cave in Shasta County. Steadman examined the bone and said it could be either gallopavo or californica. And there’s apparently another turkey fossil from El Dorado County that Steadman couldn’t get hold of. 

It’s always possible that the Potter Creek turkey bone was part of some Paleoindian traveler’s lunch. But if not, the find would place either the modern wild turkey or its evolutionary next of kin in Northern California, maybe even the Bay Area, only yesterday in geological terms. And that would make the establishment of turkeys in the Berkeley hills a kind of homecoming. 

“I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” lamented Thoreau. We’ll never get the whole thing back, of course; it’s too late for the sabertooth and the ground sloth, or even the California grizzly. But if Steadman was right, the return of the turkey does at least give us a small piece of California as it used to be.