Wild Turkeys Find New Home on Arizona Range


A century after their ancestors disappeared from this country, a small flock of Gould’s turkeys is roaming the oak-dotted highlands of the Galiuro Mountains.

Twenty-one of the birds were trapped in Mexico and freed in hopes they’ll multiply and re-establish a population all but wiped out by subsistence hunting and diseases spread by domestic fowl.

The release is part of a national effort that’s helped the wild turkey population in the United States rebound from 30,000 at the turn of the century to 4 million today. The birds were released Feb. 2 by biologists from the state Game and Fish Department with the help of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a hunting and conservation group based in Edgefield, S.C.

“Turkeys are back,” said Rob Keck, the federation’s executive director. “The wild turkey has been part of our tradition and our heritage.”


The release of Gould’s turkeys, one of five native American subspecies, capped a dozen years of efforts by the federation and officials in Arizona and Mexico, where there is a sizable population of the birds.

A day after release, one male became a bobcat’s brunch and two others that couldn’t handle the ordeal of capture and transport were killed by researchers to be tested for disease. A favorable ratio of 12 hens to six males remains, according to Ron Olding, a wildlife biologist with the state Game and Fish Department. He coordinated the transplant.

Now the 18 surviving birds, set free in oak-woodland habitat 5,500 feet up in the Galiuro Mountain range northeast of Tucson, have to do their part.

Although a hen typically lays 10 to 15 eggs, the eggs and young birds are eaten by skunks, hawks and other predators, Olding said. Each adult is fitted with a radio transmitter so biologists can track them for up to three years.


“A lot is going to hinge on how well they do this first year,” Olding said.

In the early 1980s, two attempts were made to reintroduce the bird in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona. Some interbred with the more abundant Merriam’s turkey, of which Arizona has several thousand.

“A not-quite-pure strain of Gould’s established in the Huachucas, apparently,” Olding said. But he said some still display the Gould’s distinctive white-tipped brown tail feathers.

The only other known viable Gould’s flock in this country consists of 100 to 150 in the Peloncillo Mountains, along the New Mexico-Arizona state line. That flock’s habitat lies mostly in New Mexico.


The 21 new birds were trapped with nets about 200 miles south of the Mexican border in the Sierra Madre.

The hope is that the new colony will survive and hatch a stable population which can then be used to repopulate new areas. If the birds thrive, hunting could eventually be allowed, Game and Fish officials say.

The federation is dedicated to the conservation of the American wild turkey, found in every state but Alaska, and to the turkey-hunting tradition.

Wild turkeys occupy more habitat than any other game species, and turkey hunting is a $600-million business, with about 350,000 bagged yearly.


The other American subspecies are the Florida, Eastern Wild and Rio Grande turkeys. The elusive birds can fly up to 55 m.p.h. and weigh up to 25 pounds.

“People are intrigued with turkeys, and it’s part of Americana,” Keck said.