California’s Wild Turkeys

Written by EPIC Intern, Clary Greacen Montagne


Brightly colored “Toms” or male turkeys are recognizable by their tail fans and facial wattles. Photo: October Greenfield


The wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is an instantly-recognizable game bird closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. This species has inhabited North America for over 11 million years, since the end of the Pleistocene era, or Ice Age. Wild turkeys have held a cultural role for peoples across the continent far before the first Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys were revered in ancient Aztec civilizations as the manifestation of the trickster god Tezcatlipoca, and their feathers were used for spiritual practices and to adorn jewelry and clothing. The Navajo people may have been among the first people to domesticate wild turkeys, and they remained an important food source across North America throughout history. 

Prior to European colonization of North America, more than ten million wild turkeys roamed the continent, but by the turn of the twentieth century, wild turkeys were at the brink of extinction. Four hundred years of westward expansion and the overhunting, deforestation, and resource extraction that came with it left the population decimated. Today, due to conservation and reintroduction efforts, wild turkeys populations have rebounded to around seven million, and they inhabit about 18% of the state of California. While this successful reintroduction has often been deemed a conservation success story, there is debate over their place in California’s ecosystems. 


National symbol: bald eagle or wild turkey? In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey as a national symbol, considering the proud, adaptable turkey to be more respectable and noble than the bald eagle, which often steals food or feasts on carrion. In the end, the bald eagle won out. Photo: Chris Stevenson


There are six distinct subspecies of Meleagris gallopovo; the eastern wild turkey, Florida wild turkey, Gould’s wild turkey, Merriam’s wild turkey, Rio Grande turkey, and Mexican wild turkey. The Rio Grande subspecies is the most widespread and is not native to California. Bones from a species of wild turkey once native to California, Meleagris californica, have been found in the La Brea tar pits in southern California, but this species has been extinct for thousands of years. From the 1950s through the end of the twentieth century, the California Fish and Game Commission (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,) imported thousands of non-native Rio Grande wild turkeys to California, releasing them in ove