by Dr. Robert Berdan - Photos by R Berdan & Kamal Varma
February 15, 2015
Merriam's Wild Turkeys - a tom shows off his beautifully coloured feathers.
Wild Turkeys aren't exactly common in Alberta, they can be found in Cypress Hills Provincial Park on the Saskatchewan border where they were first introduced in 1962. Subsequently they have been introduced to the Porcupine Hills, along the Milk river, near Stetler, along the Belly river, Les Lake, Todd Creek and Rocky Mountain Natural regions and grasslands. I was inspired by David Lilly's article on Wild Turkeys to seek them out near Millarville. I headed out with fellow photographer Kamal Varma. Dave told us where he photographed the Turkeys so we decided to try our luck on rather dull and overcast day in February.
We drove down a range road into the foothills and to our surprise we spotted about a dozen wild turkeys down in a ravine along side the road. I jumped out of my jeep and grabbed my camera and 300 mm lens. The Turkeys were foraging in a small forested area next to a farm house. I was getting ready to start down the ravine, but when the Turkeys saw me - they went under the fence and came right toward me and followed me around me Jeep. I couldn't believe it - they were coming to me. I switched cameras and grabbed my 70-200 mm lens. They came ever closer. I suspect that maybe a local resident might have been feeding these birds as they showed no fear.
Wild Turkeys came up and onto the back road and surrounded me
In the middle of the road I was surrounded by Turkeys. I shouted to Kamal to take some pictures of me so folks would believe my story. Kamal came out of my Jeep and they immediately started to move toward him. A car came by and I motioned to the car to slow down so they would not run over the birds. We moved off the road and the birds followed. We spent about 20 minutes watching and photographing the Wild Turkeys. They displayed some aggressive behaviours toward each other but none toward us.
I am surrounded by Wild Turkeys - I ask Kamal to take some pictures to document the experience.
On close inspection, the males (toms) had Metallic - iridescent feathering. The females had feathers tipped with white or rust. Some birds displayed dominance behaviour and the less dominant females would lay down. The head and neck of the turkeys were mostly bare skin. The toms neck and head is covered with bumps called caruncles. The intensity of the colour depends on how healthy and excited the tom is. Many of the toms would spread their feathers for us and the turkeys made loud clicking noises.
Kamal gets out of my Jeep and is immediately mobbed by Turkeys
After searching for Wild Turkeys for many years in Alberta and never finding them - this was an amazing experience. It was also very comical and I couldn't stop smiling as the birds posed for us. I shared our experience with Wild life expert Dr. Wayne Lynch who sent me an article he wrote about Wild Turkeys (see link to his PDF). I also sent Dave Lilly some pictures of us surrounded by Turkeys while Dave was vacationing in Belize.
While I was surrounded by Turkeys the thought that ran through my mind was "How can I soar with eagles when I am surrounded by Turkeys?"
Two female Turkeys and a tom.
Tom - the colours of the feathers was beautiful
Closeup of a Tom showing the bright red colours on his neck and head
Wild Turkeys in Alberta are also called Merriam's Wild Turkeys named by Dr. E.W. Nelson in 1900 in honour of C. Hart Merriam the first chief of US Biological Survey in the US. Merriam Turkeys occur in 4 provinces in Canada and 15 US states.
Nature photographers don't often get opportunities to get this close to wildlife. Kamal checks his camera gear and shouts "they are too close!"
Wild Turkeys feed on insects, spiders, acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits and buds. They also feed on waste grain, silage and livestock manure which is a seed source in winter. Despite their large size and weight, unlike domesticated turkeys, they are agile flyer's and roost in the trees at night. We did not see them fly, though the toms would hop into the air to intimidate other toms. When crossing the barb wire fence they generally went under or through the fence rather then fly over top. Eventually they wandered off into a field and I had was left with huge smile on my face and few hundred images most taken with my 70-200 mm lens.
Female Merriam's Wild Turkey
Colourful Tom, note the colours of the feathers - Wild Turkey
Who's Prettier - the tom or the female? You decide.
Merriam's Wild Turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo)
Life Span: 3-4 years
Alberta Status: Exotic Alien
Hunting: special licenses are issued to resident hunters only
Weight: 2.5-11 kg (5.5 to 19lbs)
Feed: grass, insects, seeds, nuts, fruit
Bright colour is indicator of health and state or arousal -- see article by Dr. W. Lynch below.
For more information about Merriam's wild Turkeys see the links below. If you want to search for them check out the back roads around Millarville, Alberta - you never know what you might find even on a dull winter day. RB
References and Additional Resources