Meet The Gregarious Wild Turkeys Thriving In Colorado

Merriam turkey tom and hen
Wild Turkeys, Rocky Mountain National Park | Michael Levine-Clark

A book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. Nor should a turkey be judged by the wrinkly, saggy red flap of skin called a wattle that dangles from its chin. Or the white and bluish warty bits blanketing its head. Turkeys look funny to humans. We probably look funny to them too.

 

Fortunately for turkeys, the personality department is where they shine. People who’ve spent time in the company of turkeys often speak fondly of their disposition. They describe the birds as gregarious, inquisitive, gutsy, and intelligent.

 

Even Benjamin Franklin, who found substantial fault in the iconic bald eagle, heralded the turkey’s moral character. While opining on our country’s national bird in a 1784 letter addressed to his daughter, he called turkeys “birds of courage,” that he felt were “much more respectable than bald eagles.” He thought they tasted good too, but that’s beside the point.

Wild turkey on the run
Wild turkey on the run

Throughout Colorado, wild turkeys are thriving. According to estimates from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), a remarkable 35,000 turkeys call the state home. Two subspecies comprise this total. The first is the Merriam’s turkey, native to the foothills and mountains west of I-25. The second is the Rio Grande turkey, which was introduced to the riparian zones of Colorado’s Eastern Plains in the 1980s.


Colorado’s wild turkey populations weren’t always this healthy.


Around the time of the Great Depression, wild turkeys were in steep decline across the country due to poaching and habitat loss. Starting in the 1980s, CPW launched a series of preservation initiatives aimed at recovering the losses experienced in Colorado. Partnering with the National Wild Turkey Federation, CPW trapped, relocated, and reintroduced thousands of turkeys across the state.


In Boulder County, wild turkeys are now a common sight in Fourmile Canyon and along the road to Heil Valley Ranch. Despite its destruction, the fire that ripped through Fourmile Canyon in the fall of 2010 created a favorable habitat for turkeys. Burned stands of ponderosa pines offer the birds pine seeds to feed on, while denser, unburned areas provide protection from the weather and predators.

Watercolor Wild Turkeys (John Audubon)
“Wild Turkey Cock, Hen and Young” by John James Audubon (1826) | Crystal Bridges Museum of Art

Franktown, 30 miles south of Denver, offers another success story. About 20 years ago, CPW released 10 banded turkeys in the pine-oak habitat near town. Within five years, the flock had grown to over 60 turkeys. After dividing themselves into two flocks, their numbers continued to soar. The Denver Audubon Society estimates nearly 100 turkeys now call the wooded areas around Franktown home.

 

Park County residents have witnessed a rise in turkey visitations as well. Breeding Toms displaying for dominance, mother hens guiding their chicks, and a rare smoke morph hen showing her wispy gray color mutation have all been spotted.

 

In addition to enjoying wild habitats, turkeys have also been known to take up residence in areas that seem surprisingly close to human activity.

 

Cherry Hills Village, an affluent community just south of Denver, has bridle trails meandering through scenic horse properties and natural open spaces. One such trail, that doesn’t get much use these days, greets horsemen and hikers with the sound of turkeys gobbling at them from the other side of an old split rail fence.

Male wild turkey strutting in Colorado
Male wild turkey strutting | Frank Schulenburg

In June of 2022, a flock of turkeys was spotted getting comfortable at Loveland’s busiest intersection. Unbothered by the presence of cars zipping down Highway 34 and I-25 nearby, the birds went about their daily business—foraging, preening, and maintaining the pecking order. According to CPW, the turkeys found the area desirable due to foraging opportunities and a lack of natural predators.


Earlier this year, residents of the suburbs in Douglas County were startled to find a flock of around 20 to 30 turkeys roaming their yards, raiding their bird feeders, and holding up traffic. While occasional turkey sightings aren’t uncommon in the area, residents say the numbers have dramatically increased over the past few years. CPW believes new housing and commercial developments have forced the birds to expand into new habitats.

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