The Rio Grande Wild Turkey is more than just a Texas bird.
The Rio Grande subspecies of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is best known for the arid regions of the south-central United States. But it has also been introduced along the entire West Coast and to most of the western half of the country. Here is what you need to know about the Rio Grande wild turkey if you want to check it off your list.
Description and Life History of the Rio Grande Wild Turkey
The Rio Grande wild turkey is very similar to the Eastern wild turkey. Though males typically outweigh females, Rio Grande males weigh in at only about 20 pounds while females weigh between 8 to 12 pounds (NWTF 2018a). Male turkey feathers are very similar to Eastern wild turkeys but have a bronze or copper iridescent sheen. Hens have dull feathers similar to the Easterns. The wing barring is black and white like the Eastern wild turkey, but its tail is cream to buff-colored with a dark band across the end. Rio Grande gobblers have moderate length beards which start to appear at about 6 to 7 months of age (NWTF 2018a; Texas A&M 2018). Like the Eastern wild turkey, tom heads will usually be red and blue throughout the year, but they will also contain brighter shades during the breeding season. Hens have consistently bluish-gray heads with more feathers than toms. Though females occasionally develop short, blunt spurs, male spurs are pointed and measure about 2 inches as they mature. The Rio Grande subspecies also tends to have slightly longer legs than other subspecies.
Rio Grande toms have a moderately loud gobble compared to the other subspecies (NWTF 2018a). After breeding, hens seek out a sheltered area with enough cover to hide in (e.g., brush piles, large clumps of grass) to scratch a nest on the ground (Cornell 2018; NatureServe 2018). Normally, 10 to 11 cream-colored eggs are laid in as many days and the hen incubates them for about 28 days (Texas A&M 2018).
Once hatched, the brood stays fairly close to one another, feeding heavily throughout most of the daylight hours on protein-rich invertebrates (e.g., grasshoppers, spiders and beetles). Their adult diet consists of whatever they can opportunistically forage, including grasses, seeds, buds, grains, fruits, hard mast, insects, and even amphibians or small reptiles (Texas A&M 2018; NatureServe 2018).
Though Rio Grande turkeys are active during the day, they roost at night in open hardwood trees with many horizontal limbs. This keeps them relatively safe from most ground predators, though younger birds may still fall prey to large raptors. Rio Grande turkeys prefer to roost over an open understory, including over open water (Texas A&M 2018). When the sun rises, they spend the day foraging on the ground.
Range and Habitat of the Rio Grande Wild Turkey
The Rio Grande wild turkey primarily occupies the south-central states (i.e., Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico) and northern Mexico. They have also been successfully introduced to California, Oregon, Washington and several other states as listed below. Rio Grande turkeys require a large area to roam and some individuals may travel within a 2,400 to 6,600 acre range each year (Texas A&M 2018).
Rio Grande turkeys, like most other turkey subspecies, require a combination of different habitats throughout their lifetime. In New Mexico, they seem to prefer river valleys and riparian areas with brush and mature roost trees in close proximity (NMGF 2018). In Texas, they seek out areas with lots of edge habitat, which helps them to escape from predators and the hot summer sun (Texas A&M 2018). Mature hardwood trees including “live oak, hackberry, pecan, elm, and cottonwood” are required for roosting and are often located along riparian areas (Texas A&M 2018). Rio Grande wild turkeys prefer roost trees that have open spaces (e.g., meadows, hayfields, trails, etc.) within 100 yards. These provide a space to fly up into the roost and to land again in the morning. Mature oak, pecan, beech and walnut forests also provide hard mast in the fall.
Nesting cover includes shrublands, dense field edges and tall grass areas where hens can hide from most ground predators. Once poults hatch, the hen and brood require bugging habitat in the form of short crop fields, hayfields and meadows. Turkeys also need areas where they can dust themselves, such as open soil or trails. Dust baths help clean their feathers and can dislodge parasites, which makes the ritual an important part of everyday life (NWTF 2018b).
Conservation Issues with the Rio Grande Wild Turkey
As with all of the turkey subspecies, the biggest source of mortality for individuals is during the nesting season. Since hens nest on the ground, a large number of different predators consume the unhatched eggs, including foxes, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and feral hogs (Texas A&M 2018). After hatching, the poults are susceptible to many of these predators, as well as raptors such as hawks and owls. Heavy spring rains and flash flooding can also severely affect nesting success. Habitat destruction due to land use changes, such as ranching or development, can also hinder the species. As a result, recruitment of poults into the adult population is fairly low. Nevertheless, the Rio Grande subspecies population appears to be holding steady throughout its range and is one of the most widespread subspecies besides the Eastern wild turkey.
Hunting Opportunities for the Rio Grande Wild Turkey
Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas offer the best habitat and historic range for the Rio Grande turkey. However, as mentioned, they have been introduced to other geographies and can be found and hunted in many other states.
The first step is to find the right habitat, such as riparian areas with tall roost trees alongside and open fields or areas where they can forage during the day. Once you find potential roost trees with turkey sign during the day or hear toms gobbling in the early morning, you’ll want to make sure you don’t spook them on the roost. Set up a good distance away and start calling them in to your position. The Rio Grande subspecies does not seem to be bothered by loud calling. In fact, many hunters call very aggressively to gobblers with great results. If you like calling turkeys in, hunting the Rio Grande subspecies may be your new favorite thing.
If you are pursuing a turkey slam of almost any sort, you’ll need to harvest a Rio Grande turkey at some point. Here are the states where you can pursue them during the regular shotgun season, as well as their seasons and limits. As always, thoroughly review the hunting regulations before you make any plans.
|Arizona||Spring, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|California||March 31-May 6||3 bearded turkeys|
|Colorado||April 14 – May 27||2 bearded turkeys|
|Idaho||Spring, variable units||2 bearded turkeys|
|Kansas||April 18-May 31||1 bearded turkey per permit|
|Nebraska||March-May||1 bearded turkey per permit|
|Nevada||March 31-May 6, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|New Mexico||Spring, variable units||2 bearded turkeys|
|Oklahoma||April 6-May 6||3 tom turkeys|
|Oregon||April 15-May 31||3 bearded turkeys|
|Texas||March-April, variable units||Varies by county|
|Utah||Spring, variable units||1 bearded turkey|
|Washington||Spring, variable units||License-dependent|
|Wyoming||April 1-May 20||1 bearded turkey|
Cornell (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology). 2018. All About Birds. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/id
NatureServe. 2018. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life. Accessed at: http://explorer.natureserve.org
NMGF (New Mexico Game and Fish). 2018. Wild Turkey. Accessed at: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/hunting/information-by-animal/turkey/
NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation). 2018a. Learn About the Wild Turkey Subspecies. Accessed at: http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/wild-turkey-subspecies
NWTF. 2018b. Wild Turkey Behavior. Accessed at: https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/behavior
Texas A&M (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension). 2018. Rio Grande Wild Turkey. Accessed at: https://wildlife.tamu.edu/wildlifemanagement/turkeys/