Quick question: Are all wild turkeys the same? Before you say yes or no, allow me to answer for you; it’s both yes, and no. True, a turkey is a turkey is a turkey, but there are differences. There are geographical differences; that is, where you’ll find a certain subspecies of wild turkey. Too, there are visual differences, usually having to do with coloration and overall physical size. Aural differences, too, exist. The gobble of an Iowa Eastern is very distinct when compared with the high-pitched warble of a Texas Rio.
But before you think this turkey Who’s Who is a kind of “you can’t tell them apart without a program” thing, let’s spend some time getting to know the North American subspecies a little bit better.
The Eastern (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)
For many turkey hunters, their introduction into the sport comes courtesy of the Eastern subspecies. Of the nation’s current population of more than 5 million wild turkeys, 3 million are Easterns. Numbers play a part here; so, too, does the Eastern’s widespread distribution, a range which approximately encompasses the whole of the U.S. east of a line drawn from the northeastern corner of North Dakota south to just north of Houston, Texas. Minus, that is, central and south Florida, home to the Osceola. But I emphasize approximately here, as the Eastern subspecies, thanks to trap-and-transfer and game agency trade programs, can also be found in such non-traditional places as western Washington and northwest Oregon.
One of the largest of the wild turkey subspecies, it’s not unusual to hear of an Eastern gobbler weighing between 22 and 26 pounds; however, 18- to 22-pounders are much more common. At present, three of the top 10 heaviest Eastern gobblers recorded into the NWTF ledgers were taken in Iowa, including the No. 3 gobbler that weighed an incredible 33.75 pounds, and the No. 8 bird, an equally impressive longbeard that dropped the scales to 32 pounds even.
The Eastern, whose scientific name, silvestris translates into forest turkey, is set apart visually from the others by a chocolate brown or darker buff coloration on the rump feathers, as well as on the tips of the tail feathers. The wing feathers will show equal amounts of black and white barring, and the bird will appear proportionate in size (leg length to body mass) overall.
The Rio Grande (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia)
Second only to the Eastern in population, the Rio is a bird of the wide open country. Texas, home to some 600,000 Rios, is the nation’s best bet for this remarkable Western big game bird. Other states with excellent Rio populations include Kansas and Oklahoma; however, increasing numbers can also be found in eastern Washington, central Oregon, Idaho, Montana, California, and of all places, Hawaii.
Similar in size to the Eastern, the Rio differs in two ways. First are the bird’s disproportionately long legs. Second, the Rio will show a lighter buff or tan color on the rump and tail feathers. It’s a noticeable difference in most cases; however, in those instances where Easterns and Rio Grandes have the ability to intermingle, e.g. Kansas, the resulting hybrids can be difficult if not impossible to tell apart.
The Merriams (Meleagris gallopavo merriami)
If I were forced to choose one subspecies as my favorite, it would be the Merriams, and for many reasons. First, he’s a handsome bird, with his snow-white rump feathers and tail tips set off in a contrast to an overall black background. Second, he’s eager to gobble, not only frequently, but it would seem at all hours of the day. And finally, Merriams are often willing to come long distances to a call. While the reasons behind these marathons are uncertain, my theories include the vastness of the Merriams’ historical habitat, that being the Big Country territories of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Today, some 200,000 Merriams inhabit not only their original range, but have been successfully transferred to a host of other states including South Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
The Osceola (Meleagris gallopavo Osceola)
Looking for an Osceola? You have three choices: Florida, Florida, and Florida.
The least numerous subspecies, with a current population of 80,000 birds, the Osceola is also the smallest. Gobblers will typically weigh less than 20 pounds; hens, between eight and 10 pounds. Named after the great Seminole chief, the Osceola, like the Rio, is a long-legged bird. Though similar in appearance to the Eastern, the Osceola is more black overall, even down to the birds’ wing feathers, which show only a fraction of the contrasting white markings commonly found in the others. Rump feathers and tail tips are often Eastern-like, though the tails tips may be much narrower than on the Eastern. Another characteristic of the Osceola gobbler are long, sharp spurs, hooks which can reach lengths of up to two inches.
I’ve been fortunate to take one single-season Grand Slam, the taking of all four subspecies, and that in 2005. My wife, Julia Carol, has taken two, and I’ve been with her for many of those. And despite having designated the Merriams as my so-called favorite, I’ll be honest. To me, it doesn’t matter where or what kind. Heck, I wouldn’t mind if he was day-glo orange, just as long as he gobbled. That common denominator—the gobble—is, to me, what turkey hunting’s all about.