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Taking You Back in History: Talking Turkey Part I

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, this seems like an ideal time to tell you about that iconic symbol of the up-coming holiday - the Turkey. Why are there so many wild turkeys in our area? What are their history and habits? Did you know that raising domesticated turkeys is an important part of this area’s ranching history? This article helps fulfill two goals of STCHS - an appreciation our local social history and promoting an understanding of the natural history of our area.

Wild turkeys are one of the most commonly seen species of wildlife around Groveland and throughout the west slope foothills of California. The earliest known turkey species in California existed in prehistoric times. They became extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Turkeys, thought to have come from North America, were probably first domesticated by the indigenous people of Meso-America in about 25 AD. They were brought to Europe in 1500s during the Spanish exploration of the New World. By the the late 1800s they had become nearly extinct in North America due to loss of their wild habitat.

The first known attempt at reintroduction of wild turkeys to California was in 1877 when private ranchers from Santa Cruz tried unsuccessfully to establish wild turkeys from Mexico to their land. The Department of Fish and Game tried various programs to reintroduce wild turkeys to California countrysides from the early 1900s through the 1950s. Though turkeys were brought into to 23 counties, the programs were not successful. The farm-raised wild turkeys were dependent on humans for their food and shelter and lacked the skills to survive in the wild.

Attempts were unsuccessful until 1959 when Fish and Game tried a program of introducing Texas wild-caught turkeys to more than 200 areas in the western U.S. This time they began to repopulate. A document titled “Translocation of Wild Turkeys into West-Central Tuolumne County” tells of a local project in 1999 - 2000 to release wild turkeys to multiple spots in our county for “recreational viewing and hunting.” Through the years these birds have multiplied - many would now say, too successfully.

In his book Sierra Nevada Birds David Lukas, tells us, “They are wily and evasive when hunted, but in the absence of hunting pressure they become as fearless as backyard chickens.” In winter turkeys gather in large flocks. In March and April they separate into smaller harems with the females being courted by competing males. Males try to attract females by gobbling, strutting and displaying their snoods which become engorged and turn bright blue, red and white. The females often seem to ignore them. Once successful coupling has occurred the hens wander off to create a low nest scratched in the dirt hidden in the brush. The nest has 4 - 13 eggs incubated by the mother for 26 days. They usually isolate their chicks from other turkeys until summer when they join other females with their broods. In fall the males usually gather in small groups. Wild turkeys consume large quantities of acorns, nuts, seeds, grains, insects, lizards, and small snakes - reports say about one pound of food per meal.

As to concerns about this bird's impact on the flora and fauna of the area where they are abundant, Scott Gardner, an environmentalist for the California Fish and Game Commission says, “It is obvious that the turkeys are here to stay and that long term scientific studies are needed.” There is a long range concern for the damage they are causing the environment and ecosystem.

Did you know that there was once turkey ranching in and around Groveland? Look for Part II of Talking Turkey to learn a little about it.

Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p.


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