Merriam’s Turkey – A Bird of a Different Feather
Colorado’s Native Species – by Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Program Coordinator
Named in honor of the first chief of the U.S. Biological Service, C. Hart Merriam, the Merriam’s wild turkey is primarily found in the higher elevations of Colorado, along the higher foothills and west of I-25.The distribution map shows the general range of the Merriam’s in green. If you were to overlay this distribution on a topographical map of the state, you will quickly discover the home of the Merriam’s in Colorado is in the higher elevations in the conifer and aspen parks of the Rocky Mountains and the higher elevations of the Western Slope. The variety of habitat which exists for Merriam’s in Colorado makes considerations of how to hunt them a critical piece of the equation. This article speaks to some of the habitat considerations but finding the birds on the east side of the Continental Divide will be a bit different than those who call the Western Slope home.
Merriam’s are most clearly distinguished from their Rio Grande cousins by their pure white tail margins and the nearly white feathers on their lower back. The Merriam’s adult male beard is generally not as full or long as the Rio Grande and their spurs are generally shorter due to the constant wear from the rocky ledges and trails they travel in the mountains and foothills. Merriam’s will migrate from the lower elevations of the foothills where they spend the winter to the higher elevations in summer where they will breed and nest. The travel to breeding and nesting grounds for Merriam’s typically guides the spring turkey hunter with respect to where to scout and where the calling game gets started.
Scouting for Merriam’s
As with all turkey hunting, finding the birds is the first real challenge. As the weather warms and the snow melts to reveal the grasses and forbs of the mountain meadows, the birds will begin to move up the slopes to breeding and nesting areas. Until the snow depths allow the birds to begin this movement, they will remain in the lower elevations and depending on the spring snows, may begin the breeding cycle in the foothills. There is no exact science to determining where the birds will be, but understanding their need for food, water and shelter will help guide your scouting trips. Look at a map and find the meadows which will yield bugs and forbs, consider the snow line and the depth of the snow, then get out your hiking boots and binoculars to cover a lot of ground before the hunting season begins.
For those who hunt the Rockies for elk and deer, hunting Spring Merriam’s can seem very familiar to those early fall scouting trips. A good place to start is to find water sources and travel corridors. Roost sites in the foothills may be cottonwood stands but as the spring warms, the roost sites may turn to conifer and open stands. Preseason scouting will require covering a lot of territory, both by vehicle and on foot. Driving to high vantage points and glassing the bottoms, open ridges and meadows will help you locate birds. Walking the passable US Forest Service roads and trails will help you find tracks, dropping and feathers to indicate the presences of birds. But remember this “spot and stalk” technique of preseason scouting will help you know where the birds are today, they may not be in the same location or altitude in a couple of weeks as the snow retreats up the mountain.
Finally, do not be in a hurry to hit the mountains the opening day of turkey season if you are looking for Merriam’s. Generally, the spring turkey season arrives in Colorado in mid-April and the spring weather will dictate much of the hunter’s success. March snows can come in significant volume and force the birds to remain at lower elevations and in their typical winter flocks until late into the month of April or early May. Many seasoned Colorado turkey hunters look to chase Rio gobblers in April if they can draw a limited license and head to the hills the last three weeks of the spring season to find a Merriam’s gobbler who is on the prowl for new lady friends.
Turkey hunting gear for Merriam’s may sound very similar to the gear used to hunt the Eastern and Rio Grande subspecies. The calls, camouflage and decoys are similar and they are used in a similar manner, but when you think of Merriam’s, you need to think mobile and big country.
When hunting Rios or Easterns, I typically hunt using a turkey vest; I have a pocket in it for everything and can carry a great deal of gear in one. But a daypack with a foam seat hooked to it is a better idea when I head to the mountains. I can still carry all my gear in it; stuff several folding decoys and a full body decoy in the pack and even have room for lunch, snacks, a small backpack stove for a cup of coffee and other items to make a long day in the field more pleasurable.
My choice in calls changes as well. I use a mouth diaphragm and slate call most of the time when I am hunting the flat ground birds, but big country and wind makes using a loud box call or friction call a necessity when working high country birds. I still keep a call in my mouth but it is there for that last 150 yards of confidence calling, not for the early part of the game. While I am talking about calls, now is a proper time to mention patience. While one of the fundamental skills we all learn about hunting spring turkeys, patience to a Merriam’s hunter is a true virtue. Remember that even if a bird responds to your call, he may be a mile away and have to cross a valley, ridge or even a canyon to get to you. That will take time. Listen, work with the bird if he continues to gobble, but also realize that Merriam’s are not as vocal as the other subspecies and the tom may be coming to you without much of a discussion. Be patient, listen and look.
From a bit of research and personal experience, I find Merriam’s toms to be a bit more aggressive than Easterns or Rios. Decoys can be the difference between a successful harvest and just a good conversation with a tom. But there again, if you are planning to walk a few miles to locate your birds, you may need to choose the right decoys by weight and by “attractiveness” to the responding bird. A strutting Jake decoy with a couple of feeding or breeding posture hens can be the right balance between weight and visibility. A visible tail fan and some aggressive hen clucks may be the right ticket to send your gobbler into a sprint to your decoy spread to defend his territory or steal a new girlfriend for his flock.
Finally, consider some changes to other “turkey gear” as well. I trade good hiking boots for the typical waterproof rubber boots I use for hunting the riparian areas of Rios and low marsh zones of Eastern wilds turkey. A pair of knee pads and elbow pads will help soften the rocks that always seem to be present at the exact spot I decide to kneel down. A good GPS and map will help mark the locations of roost sites, dusting fields and finding the way back to the truck in the dark. Extra socks, a change of undershirts and a windproof jacket will help take the damp chill off the day or add some warmth as the sun sets.
Heading to Roost
I looked for some additional articles about hunting our Colorado Merriam’s both in text print and on-line and found little which specifically talked about the subject. If you look for information on hunting wild turkey, you will find most of the information concerns hunting Eastern or Rio Grande turkeys. The basics such as finding birds, using camouflage and being still remain the same. BUT, I believe the challenges of scouting, learning to call in high winds, decoy sets and mobile hunting techniques makes this “bird of a different feather” a most worthy opponent for the hunter. Read the articles, look at the map, remember safety, and good luck in the woods this spring. It will be Remarkable!