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Introduction to the Merriam's Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo merriami

The Merriam's wild turkey is found primarily in the ponderosa pine, western mountain regions of the United States. Within its suspected historic range in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, the Merriam's was relatively isolated from the other subspecies of wild turkey. Current evidence supports the hypothesis that it was a relative newcomer to western American wildlife when the Europeans discovered it. It was named by Dr. E.W. Nelson in 1900 in honor of C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey.

Physical Characteristics

Although approximately the same size as the Eastern, the Merriam has different coloration. It is black with blue, purple and bronze reflections. White feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins distinguish the Merriam from other subspecies of turkey. Merriam’s appear to have a white rump due to pinkish buff, or whitish tail coverts and tips. It closely resembles the Gould's turkey but its tail margin is not usually quite as pure white nor is the light margin of the tail tip quite as wide as in the Gould's. The tail feathers are very conspicuous when the gobbler struts against a dark background. Toms have black-tipped breast feathers, while the hens exhibit buff tips. Hens have a more extensive white area on the wings giving a whiter appearance when the wings are folded.

Habitat and Range 

Merriam's turkeys were historically found 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, Nebraska and South Dakota. Merriam's 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. Their normal range receives annual rainfall amounts averaging between 15 and 23 inches.

Life History

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 become winter flocks. These flocks winter as high up on the mountain as snow permits. The cycle begins again in the spring.


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.


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