a discussion by Don Roberson

All California checklists and avifaunas to date have considered the Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo to be a non-native introduced species in the State, and a fairly recent one at that. Grinnell & Miller (1944), for example, did not even include it on the state list, relegating it to a "supplemental list" in the back along with other non-established gamebirds like Silver Pheasant and Eastern Bob-white. They noted that "attempts to establish Wild Turkeys in California began as long ago as 1877" on Santa Cruz Island, and traced various other efforts, but "at the present writing (1944) we are aware of no instance in California of unquestioned establishment of turkeys in the wild."

The Fifth edition A.O.U. Check-list (1957) gave the range of Wild Turkey from Arizona to southeastern Oklahoma and thence through Tennessee, West Virginia, and New York, and south to Florida and Texas, but noted that it formerly ranged north to southeastern South Dakota, southern Wisconsin, southern Ontario, and southwestern Maine. That Check-list also described Upper Pliocene fossils in Kansas, and Pleistocene fossils widely from New Mexico to Pennsylvania and Florida. The only introduced range given at that time was in New Zealand. But the California Dept. of Fish & Game sponsored widespread introductions in the 1960s and 1970s within the state, and by the time the CBRC published its first state checklist (McCaskie et al. 1970) the Wild Turkey was one of nine "introduced" non-natives listed [footnote 1].

In Monterey County, for example, the Breeding Bird Atlas project traced the local established population to an aggressive program of introductions by Calif. Fish & Game beginning in 1965; at least 361 turkeys were released in the 30 years since. Today they are well established through the oak savanna in the foothills of Monterey County and south into San Luis Obispo County. Other populations thrive in oak habitat in Sierran foothills along the east edge of the Central Valley, and in the Coast Ranges north of San Francisco from about Sonoma & Napa counties to Mendocino Co. [a map of current northern California range is in Fix & Bezener (2000).]

Largely because of the tradition that arose with the first CBRC checklist back in 1970, Wild Turkey has always been listed as a "non-native introduced species" in California. Yet the current 7th ed. A.O.U. Check-list notes that the Turkey has been "reintroduced widely through its former breeding range north of Mexico, and established locally north to southern British Columbia, Washington, Idaho..." [and various points east; emphasis mine]. The implication of this statement is that turkeys in California have been "re-introduced" into "former" range, and this point warrants consideration. Were Wild Turkeys ever native to California? Should we consider them to be "reintroduced natives" rather than "introduced non-natives?" I present evidence here that supports a non-traditional view of the Wild Turkey in California.

[As an aside, I hope that readers can generally agree that the introduction of non-native birds to lands in which they did not evolve is a "bad" practice, often with strong negative impacts to the environment and local avifauna, but that the reintroduction of native birds into former habitat is a "good" practice. We thus praise efforts to re-establish populations of California Condor in the state, and are very pleased that efforts to re-introduce Peregrine Falcons throughout California, and Bald Eagles to the central coast, have been successful. Efforts to reintroduce Elf Owl and some other species have not yet been successful, but we support them. Our view of the Wild Turkey may be quite different if it is actually a native California bird rather than a non-native gamebird unwisely planted by government.]

[As another aside, I note that many California birders "count" their state or county lists "NIB" = No Introduced Birds. The entire "County Listers" (now "County Birders") group compares their lists on NIB totals only, and the entire county list spreadsheet prepared by John Sterling and available on-line is strictly NIB. All those listers routinely "count" Peregrine Falcons on county lists although essentially all Peregrines in the state arise from reintroduced populations, at least as breeding birds, and it is impossible to determine whether winter observations are from manipulated populations or not. I assume that if Sharp-tailed Grouse were reintroduced into native habitat in the extreme northeast of California, even NIB listers would consider them countable. Thus, if Wild Turkey was actually a native California bird, it seems logical that it would be included on all lists, even those compiled under NIB auspices.]

The critical research to help us in this task was published by David W. Steadman (1980) in proceedings of the L.A. County Museum. He reviewed the osteology and paleontology of Turkeys in North America. It is his opinion that turkeys evolved from a peafowl-like (Pavo) ancestor that crossed the Bering landbridge when Alaska was connected to Eurasia eons ago. This is, of course, the same route by which humans are thought to have originally populated the New World. This proto-turkey evolved through time. The earliest fossil has been assigned to the now-extinct Rhegminornis calbates from the Lower Miocene in Florida; it has characters of both Pavo-like pheasants and emerging New World turkeys. By the Upper Pliocene true turkeys had evolved (Proagriocharis kimballensis and the genus Meleagris). By the Pleistocene, the genus Meleagris was well established and had at least four species: M. gallopavo (today's Wild Turkey), M. ocellata (today's Ocellated Turkey in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico), M. californica, and M. crassipes (three additional species in the genus were earlier in the Pliocene). The latter two species are now extinct, but for purposes of this discussion I'll call M. californica the "California Turkey" (more below). The most important point for our purposes is that today's Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo is the same species as the turkeys that existed in the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago [I believe the last Ice Age was about 12,000 years ago.] This is not unusual. We humans existed as the same species as we are today in those same times.

Posted below is Figure 1 from Steadman (1980) which I have modified with some color:

This map shows the pre-Columbian range of Wild Turkey (cross-hatched range colored in darkest blue) and the sites of various fossils from the late Pleistocene. The cross-hatched range is the range of Wild Turkey at the time of Columbus, i.e., 1492. The map also shows the location of various fossil turkeys. Many Meleagris gallopavo (our Wild Turkey) are within the pre-Columbian range. Another set of fossils are centered in and around the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles Co., California; these are M. californica, our "California Turkey." The entire known range of all fossils of California Turkey are encompassed within the yellow range.

The California Turkey M. californica "undoubtedly evolved from populations that became isolated in California [in the Miocene] .. The high degree of similarity between M. californica and M. gallopavo suggests either that these two species were subject to fairly similar selective forces after populations of their common ancestors became isolated, or that the ancestor of M. californica became isolated in California only after reaching the M. gallopavo grade... The quite arid conditions in western Arizona and southeastern California that prevail today could easily have provided a barrier to gene flow between the turkeys of southwestern California and southeastern Arizona" [Steadman 1980].

It is thus apparent that, at a minimum, California once hosted the ancestor to today's Wild Turkey. This is very different than any of the other introduced birds in the state which evolved long distances away. Equally interesting, it appears that California Turkey was an isolated population in southwestern California around today's Los Angeles. It was intermediate in size between the small M. crassipes [known from Kansas & Arizona] and M. gallopavo. Its entire known range did not extent north of today's Santa Barbara Co. nor south of Orange Co. (the Orange Co. fossil is a probable i.d. only).

Two fossil turkeys are of particular interest. That fossil labeled by the red arrow "A" was found at American Falls, Power Co., Idaho. This fossil was reviewed by Steadman and by Hopkins et al. (1969) and both agree it is a tarsometatarus of Meleagris gallopavo, the Wild Turkey. Please note that Idaho was not within the pre-Columbian range of Wild Turkey -- not by a long shot. This means that sometime before the last Ice Age there were Wild Turkeys in Idaho. This is thus a native bird of Idaho -- far from the limited range to which it had withdrawn by the time of Columbus.

The second interesting fossil is labeled by red arrow "B" at Potter Creek Cave, Shasta County, California. This is a humerus and is either M. gallopavo (Wild Turkey) or M. californica (California Turkey). It had once been assigned to M. californica by Brodkorb (1964), but Steadman (1980) showed it could be either species of turkey. It is, however, "qualitatively separable from all species except M. gallopavo and M. californica" (Steadman 1980); emphasis mine.

This means there was a native turkey in Shasta County in the Pleistocene, no more than 10,000 years ago. [Steadman (1980) also mentions a fossil from El Dorado Co. from the same era that he could not locate to review; others had identified it a Meleagris sp. It seems likely that the northern California turkey was widespread in the foothills]. It was either the Wild Turkey -- the same species as today -- or the now extinct California Turkey.

I think it more likely that the Shasta County turkey was the widespread generalist -- the Wild Turkey -- initially ranging across all of today's northern United States & southern Canada as do many current species, including relatives like Ruffed Grouse. The California Turkey -- arising in isolation because of the Mojave Desert and Transverse Ranges that limit dispersal -- seems likely to be more similar in distribution to, say, the California Gnatcatcher, or the California (Dusky) Chipmunk, or a host of other vertebrates (snakes, lizards) whose range is limited to coastal southwestern California. All the evidence we have on hand about California Turkey is that it was strictly limited to the greater Los Angeles Basin. The fossils are all within that small area, extending north only to Santa Barbara and south (maybe -- fossil i.d. tentative) to Orange County.

But there is one counter example: that California endemic, the Yellow-billed Magpie, had an original range from the northern edge of the Los Angeles Basin to Monterey and thence east into the Central Valley and up to the Shasta foothills. It is possible that the ranges of the two turkeys mirrored the two magpies. However, there is no substantive evidence for this, and today's range of the Fish & Game released Wild Turkey -- which then spread into acceptable habitat -- does not mirror the range of Yellow-billed Magpie closely at all.

At a minimum, there is undisputed evidence that the direct ancestors of today's Wild Turkey were once part of the native California avifauna. There is circumstantial evidence that the Wild Turkey M. gallopavo -- the very same species -- once roamed the northern California foothills, as it does again today. In either case it is of a qualitative difference from introduced exotics like Ring-necked Pheasant  or Chukar or Rock Dove or Spotted Dove or Starling or House Sparrow, all of which evolved in Eurasia and were never anywhere close to a native bird. There is also no evidence that ptarmigan or Red-crowned Parrots ever had ancestors here. The Wild Turkey is unique.

Accordingly, the "I" (for "Introduced") that is appended to the name Wild Turkey on the official state list should bear an asterisk or footnote indicating that its ancestors were native California birds and that it was likely a California native once as well. It is thus closer to a "re-introduced" species than an "introduced" non-native. I see no apparent logic is considering re-introductions within the last few years or the last 50 years or the last 500 years to be qualitatively different that a re-introduction from 10,000 years ago. The turkey evolved to exist in harmony with the native California flora and fauna, something we cannot say that about any of the other exotics [footnote two].

Acknowledgment: I thank Kimball Garrett for supplying me with a copy of the relevant pages of Steadman (1980). This was not an easy paper to secure.

Photo: The Wild Turkey photo on this page was taken in Lake Co., California, in May 1998; © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Footnote 1: Of the nine listed, two have since been deleted from the official checklist (Gray Partridge, Ringed Turtle-dove) and two have since been added (White-tailed Ptarmigan, Red-crowned Parrot). So there remains nine non-native "introduced" species listed on official checklists today.

Footnote 2: It should be apparent I am talking solely about Wild Turkeys breeding and living in the wild, not ranch-raised or barnyard birds.

Literature cited:

Brodkorb, P. 1964. Catalogue of fossil birds: Part 2 (Anseriformes through Galliformes). Bull. Florida State Mus., Biol. Sci. 11: 99-220.

Fix, D., and A. Bezener. 2000. Birds of Northern California. Lone Pine Publ., Edmonton, Alberta.

Grinnell, J., and A. H. Miller. 1944. The Distribution of the Birds of California. Pacific Coast Avifauna 27.

Hopkins, M.L., R. Bonnichsen, and D. Fortsch. 1969. The stratigraphic positions and faunal associates of Bison (Gigantobison) latrifrons in southeastern Idaho, a progress report. Tebiwa 12: 1-8.

McCaskie, G., P. Devillers, A. M. Craig, C. R. Lyons, V. P. Coughran, J. T. Craig. 1970. A checklist of the birds of California. Calif. Birds 1: 4-28.

Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, ed. 1993. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County, California. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

Steadman, D. W. 1980. A review of the osteology and paleontology of turkeys (Aves: Meleagridinae). Contribution of the Science and Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California 330: 131-207.






Page created 23-24 Nov 2001