Arizona is home to three subspecies of turkeys:Merriam’s, Gould’s, and Rio Grandes.
Merriam's turkey are found throughout the Western United States primarily in the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado, New Mexico, and northern Arizona. They have been transplanted into the pine forests of Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Gould’s turkey are only found in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. In Arizona, wild turkeys can be found not only in ponderosa pine forest but also other vegetation types in elevations ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 feet. The best populations of Merriam’s, however, occur in the ponderosa pine forests north of the Gila River. The Gould’s occupy the sky island habitats in southeastern Arizona.
Gould's turkeys are one of Arizona's two native wild turkey species. They are slightly larger than Merriam's turkey. Gould's turkey were once found throughout southern Arizona. Gould's were an important food source for those who settled and worked in the rugged lands of southern Arizona years ago. Between the Civil War and World War I, miners working in southern Arizona harvested Gould's for many of their meals. By the time Arizona had legal hunting seasons in 1929, Gould's Turkey had already disappeared from the scene. Gould's now occupy only a few remote mountain ranges in Arizona. However, these birds are making comeback tracks in the Huachucas and other mountain ranges in southern Arizona.
Rio Grande turkey were recently introduced on the Arizona Strip at Black Rock Mountain. This terrain is similar to where the birds were transplanted from in Utah. The Rio Grande subspecies is very similar to the Merriam’s turkey, and it would take a side-by-side comparison to notice the differences. The Rio is slightly smaller and the banded accent tail-feathers are slightly darker. However, most notably are the primary wing feathers, the Rios are mainly black with small white accent bars, while the Merriams are white with small black accents. This turkey subspecies prefers areas with drainages and stream beds in relatively open brush and scrub country up to 6,000 feet in elevation.
The onset of breeding is heralded by the commencement of gobbling as the temperatures warm in the spring. Gobbling may start late in February and early March. With a second peak of gobbling occurring in early May. Toms may continue to gobble into June. Hens mate once and may fertilize all of the 8 to 12 eggs from one union. Incubation takes 28 days. The hen does not begin to incubate until all the eggs are laid and all the eggs hatch within a single day. The young are capable of moving from the nest soon after hatching. The hens and poults spend the rest of the summer eating, loafing, and gaining weight. As winter approaches hens and poults begin to form flocks with other hens and poults. These flocks winter as high up on the mountain as snow permits. The cycle begins again in the spring.
Wild turkeys have been classified as big game since 1913 when the first state legislature established a bag limit of three birds to be taken between October 1 and December 15. Turkey populations appeared to hold up fairly well, at least in northern Arizona, as the season was still a month long and the bag limit was only reduced to two in the new "game code" of 1929. After World War II, however, hunt pressure gradually increased, and hunt regulations became more stringent. Fall hunting was the only turkey hunting allowed, and by 1950 a hunter had to draw a permit to even hunt turkeys. Annual harvests ranged from a few hundred birds to more than 1,300.
Turkey populations were fairly robust in the early 1960s, and the permit requirement was dropped in 1963; tag sales jumped from 8,050 in 1962 to 17,479 in 1963, but the turkey harvest only increased from 1,363 to 1,462. The first spring gobbler hunt was authorized in 1965 (100 permits), and by 1969 the annual turkey harvest had climbed to 2,480 birds, with another 138 turkeys taken earlier that spring. Today, fall hunting and spring hunting are by permit-only. In the spring, the number of gobblers taken is equal to or greater than the fall harvest.
In 2003, Arizona offered their first Gould’s turkey hunt-permit since the birds extirpation in the early nineteenth century.
During winter Merriam's turkey congregate in the pinyon pine-oak habitats at the interface with ponderosa pine. If weather permits they may even winter in the ponderosa pine. Deep snow forces them to move to lower elevations. During spring snow melt, they again move up slope following the snow line and breeding activity begins. Toms begin to gobble and form harems. After mating, hens move into denser habitat at higher elevation to lay and incubate eggs. Toms and hens are not usually seen together except during the breeding season which is late March to early June. The remainder of the year they are in similar habitat, but do not flock together.
During the summer months hens and poults spend much of their time searching for bugs and seeds in small forest openings and forest meadows. As winter approaches, oaks and pinyon ripen. The hens, poults, and toms feed on these mast crops. With the onset of winter they begin to move out of the snow into pine stringers at lower elevations.
Summary Breeding Period: Late April-May
Young Appear: June
Average Number of Young: 9
Distribution: 5K-9K ft, along the Mogollon Rim and White Mountains
Habitat: Pine forests
Food Preference: Green weeds, insects, juniper berries, acorns, grass seed, mast, and pine seeds
Range: 5-30 sq. miles
Live Weight: M-15-30lbs.; F-8-12lbs.
Predators: Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, eEagles, and great horned owls