Hunting Tips: Grand Slam Turkeys

The shooting of each of America's four sub-species of turkey, the largest game bird, represents the coveted Grand Slams to turkey hunters.

If Ben Franklin had had his way, the wild turkey would be the reigning symbol of the United States, not the bald eagle. Franklin sought to recognize the magnificent bird for its contribution as a food source and its wily nature. Using the wing bones of the wild turkey itself, native Americans hunted wild turkeys for food more than 4,000 years ago. Upon arriving in the New World the wild turkey was a prime source of game for European settlers in harsh winters and was a centerpiece of early Thanksgiving celebrations.

Once abundant in the American woods, habitat destruction and over hunting depleted the numbers of wild turkey in the early 1900s to scarcely 30,000 birds. In 1937 the Roosevelt Administration passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act which placed an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and other hunting equipment. The billions of dollars raised by this tax have been used in part to rebuild the wild turkey population and as the 21st century begins there are almost five million wild turkeys roaming North America. This largest of all game birds can be found in every state save Alaska.

There are four main subspecies of wild turkey: the Eastern Wild Turkey, the Florida Wild Turkey, the Merriam's Wild Turkey, and the Rio Grande Wild Turkey. Bagging each one of the wily quarries will earn the turkey hunter a 'Grand Slam.'

The Eastern Wild Turkey is the largest of the wild turkeys making it the largest of all North American game birds. It is native to the eastern part of the United States, although the Eastern can be found along the Mississippi River and in the Pacific Northwest as well. A woodlands bird, the Eastern Wild Turkey favors forested shelter but commonly forages for food in high grass and shrubs. That food for turkeys can include insects, nuts, berries, seeds and the occasional leafy, green plant.

As its name implies, the Rio Grande Wild Turkey is native to Texas and the the south-central plains states, although there are vibrant populations in the Pacific Northwest as well. Only slightly smaller than the Eastern, the Rio Grande adult male can tip the scales at up to 21 pounds. It can typically be found among cottonwoods at the edge of river land and among the low-growing branches of the pine and juniper forests. Like all wild turkeys, the Rio Grande is a strong flyer but normally travels by running on the ground.

Merriam's turkey can be found throughout the western United States. Given its choice, the Merriam's would choose a ponderosa pine forest but will take to other vegetation in higher elevations. The Merriam's Wild Turkey can be found as high as 10,000 feet up into the mountains. If the snows are not too deep it may even stay in the high country all winter.

The Florida Wild Turkey, sometimes known as Osceola for a famous Seminole Indian chief, is the smallest and most challenging species of turkey to hunt. It is found in the palmetto thickets and large oak forests of Florida. Due to its limited range, the Florida Wild Turkey attracts thousands of would-be Slammers to the Sunshine State each hunting season to practice their mating calls and hope to gnaw off the toughest leg of the turkey hunter's Grand Slam.

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