Researching Merriam's Wild Turkeys to Better Tune Habitat

Habitat and wildlife can take a beating during times of severe drought and harsh winters in the West. 

Devil’s Garden in northeast California’s Modoc National Forest, for example, is a 4,500- to 5,000-foot high desert plateau that’s a critical wintering ground for mule deer migrating from southern Oregon and is home to one of California’s few Merriam’s wild turkey flocks. In 2008, a severe winter storm left several feet of snow there. This snow forced wild turkeys and deer across a major state highway, on which hundreds of deer and turkeys were struck by vehicles. Eight years later, the turkeys are still struggling to rebound and are now affected by severe drought.

“The deep snow left many birds unable to forage during a critical time needed to retain fat deposits, resulting in a large winter kill,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF regional biologist for California and Nevada.

Vella said the NWTF plans to install GPS backpacks on wild turkeys to gauge over-winter survival and determine how we can help this population rebound.

Western wild turkeys often survive harsh winters on private land. Vella said some Devil’s Garden birds spend winters on cattle ranches. They supplement their diet with alfalfa and grain fed to livestock.

In parts of California and Nevada, wild turkeys also reside in transitional areas between natural areas and developed land. They move into residential and urban areas during severe weather and depend on nontraditional food sources, such as pet food and urban landscaping, to survive. “Wild turkeys become a nuisance to the residents of these areas, and they tend to lose their value as a wild animal,” Vella said.

Local timber companies are benefitting wild turkeys and other wildlife by clearcutting 40-acre areas and thinning others, which reduces fire danger while promoting tree growth. “This creates a rich diversity of habitat where turkeys have sufficient areas for forage and roosting,” Vella said.

Availability of water is one of the biggest limiting factors on wildlife in the West.

The NWTF’s Guzzlers for Gobblers program helps bring water to wildlife in Devil’s Garden. Guzzlers catch and store water from snow and rain. Beyond aiding wild turkeys and other upland game birds, the guzzlers help deer, elk and other wildlife populations survive summer and fall.

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