SUPER BIRD: Wild turkey hunting season opens MondayHunters are advised to look for streams, ponds an

April 11, 2002 11:00 pm
Noble rio grande: The Rio Grande turkey is flourishing in Northeast Oregon after a successful transplant program which started in the 1980s. (Jim Ward photo).
Noble rio grande: The Rio Grande turkey is flourishing in Northeast Oregon after a successful transplant program which started in the 1980s. (Jim Ward photo).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

A super turkey is developing in Northeast Oregon.

No, it does not wear a cape, change feathers in phone booths or succumb to kryptonite.

However, the bird is a hybrid with exceptional nesting and winter survival skills.

Northeast Oregons Rio Grande turkeys are cross-breeding with Merriams turkeys, according to Dave Zalunardo, a U.S. Forest Service biologist with the Ochoco National Forest in Central Oregon.

An increasing number of Merriams in Idaho are flying across the Snake River and moving into Northeast Oregon. Interbreeding is inevitable.

In South Dakota and Kansas many Rio Grande and Merriams turkeys have interbred and the results have been remarkable.

They take on the best qualities of both species. It has been called a super turkey, said Zalunardo, who spoke last week in La Grande at a Turkey Jamboree put on by the Oregon Hunters Association.

Rio Grande turkeys are noted for their determination to nest and re-nest in difficult situations. Merriams are not determined nesters but they are better able to survive harsh winters.

Rio Grande-Merriams hybrids are determined nesters and able to survive harsh winters, Zalunardo said.

Merriams were released in Northeast Oregon in the 1980s but the transplants were unsuccessful. Rio Grande turkey transplants have been very successful.

The reason for the difference may be that far more Rio Grande turkeys were released than Merriams. Zalunardo noted that some Rio Grande releases sometimes involved hundreds of birds. Many Merriams releases involved just 10 birds.

Merriams were not given a fair chance, Zalunardo said.

The biologist said that Merriams should do well in Northeast Oregon since they have flourished in other regions with similar habitat.

Wild turkeys, which are not native to Oregon, have been transplanted throughout the world for the past 100 years. There is no evidence that the bird has had a negative impact on any native animal or plant populations.

Turkeys literally will eat almost anything, Zalunardo said. They are


Wild turkeys have little impact on plant and animal numbers because they never focus on a single food source, Zalunardo said.


One of the big controversies concerning wild turkeys is whether they should be fed in the winter.

Biologists are split on this issue, Zalunardo said.

In areas with poor habitat and harsh winters feeding is necessary.

In areas with good habitat and relatively mild winters the feeding of turkeys will cause populations to grow significantly. Zalunardo is concerned that feeding could cause turkey populations to grow to the point that the wild turkey will become a public nuisance.

I dont want to see it reduced to rat status, Zalunardo said.

He noted that goose populations in some areas are so high people now find them annoying.

They are looked upon as a varmint instead of a noble bird, Zalunardo said.

He cited Bends Drake Park as a place where geese have become a nuisance.

The biologist also worries that getting a lot of turkeys in a small area for winter feeding will make them more susceptible to predators such as coyotes.

Wild turkey hunting season opens on Monday. Zalunardo advised hunters to look for streams, ponds and moist meadows because extensive radio telemetry studies indicate turkeys are frequently found near water where there are lots of insects.

Hunters should also look for clearings created by forest fires. Turkeys are attracted to the broadleaf plants that take root in burned areas.

If there are any turkeys around a burn area they will be there, Zalunardo said.

Burned areas must have tall trees since turkeys need them to roost at night.

Zalunardo was one of several speakers at the Turkey Jamboree. Following are additional points made by Zalunardo and Jonel Ricker, a La Grande attorney and an avid turkey hunter, who also spoke.

Flunking the smell test: Turkeys dont associate danger with smell, Ricker said. This is one of the few things that make turkeys vulnerable because they have excellent eyesight and other qualities that make them elusive.

If they did (associate danger with smell) I dont know if they could be killed, Ricker said.

Determination second to none: Rio Grande turkeys are legendary for their determination to nest. Zalunardo noted that one Rio Grande hen he followed through radio telemetry incubated a clutch of infertile eggs for more than three months. It takes only 28 days for turkey eggs to hatch. Zalunardo and his crew felt so sorry for this dedicated hen that they finally broke all her eggs so she would abandon her futile effort and get on with her life.

Iron wings: Turkey hunters would be wise to fire always at the head and not the wings because a turkeys wings protect its body from shot, Ricker said.