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On the Trail of the Elusive One

The Prey

The wild fowl, who's no dummy, is an environmental success story.


Here's a tidbit to chew on over your Thanksgiving plate of the supposedly dumbest bird around: Outwit a wild turkey--the ones that wander this land untamed and presumably hiding from the armed and hungry--and you wear a badge of outdoorsmanship for life.

Ask Kelly Padden, one of about 100 hard-core wild-turkey hunters in Southern California.

"The wild turkey," says the Fountain Valley man, "is very hard to kill. They have vision like you wouldn't believe. You just imagine walking around with 10-power binoculars on your face. You're going to be pretty hard to sneak up on. That's what it is like being a wild turkey."

And the toughest place to bag a turkey, he says, is in Southern California. Forget even trying in Los Angeles County, with its measly 40 wild turkeys. Your odds are a little better in Orange County, with 80 of the birds. Or better yet in San Diego County, with 160, or San Bernardino County, which has 200.

When so many of the wild turkey's domesticated cousins are served up for human consumption this holiday season, Padden offers food for thought.

"Turkeys," he said, "ain't turkeys."

The ancestors of these wily locals gave their lives to the first Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe shared a feast in 1621. Which makes this a natural time to take stock of the bird's miraculous resurgence: After almost being wiped from the nation by hunters in the early 20th century, the wild turkey now is thriving as one of the biggest environmental success stories of the last 100 years.

Hunters and habitat destruction almost brought the bird to ruin; by the late 1930s, there were about 30,000 wild turkeys in the country. There were only a handful in California, so few nobody bothered to count.

In 1973, hunters, worried they would lose their game bird, founded the National Wild Turkey Federation, which boasts more than 180,000 hunter-conservationists in its membership and spends millions to track and relocate turkeys. The group maintains a Wild Turkey Super Fund, millions of dollars gathered from its membership through fund-raisers, to help relocate birds in trouble and spread out the turkey population.

So far, officials say, the group has helped relocate some 150,000 turkeys over the years and spent some $80 million. Their efforts, coupled with hunters obeying the limits on when turkeys could be hunted, breathed new life into the gobbler population.

As it stands, the turkey numbers haven't been better since folks started counting: 5 million nationwide, 100,000 in California. Every county in the state has wild turkeys except San Francisco.

This state isn't their natural habitat; they are presumed to have been brought here by pioneers in the late 1800s. And Southern California isn't their favorite place to live; the birds thrive more in the open and chillier lands farther north.

"We think the turkey is the great untold story," said Dave Rasmussen of Fresno, who is regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "It is a precious bird. They are part of our history. They command your respect . . . and your intelligence."

Benjamin Franklin thought so highly of the turkey he lobbied for it to be named the national bird. Eagles were uninteresting and pedestrian, Franklin once said, because they've "been found in all countries."

"The turkey," he said, "is peculiar to ours."

Hunters say wild turkeys, from their vantage point in the trees where they roost, are able to detect sounds and movements as subtle as a hunter's sigh. Try using a special cedar box designed to imitate a turkey mating call: The turkey knows better.

"Contrary to popular belief, the turkey is a very creative and stealthy animal," Rasmussen said. "They're very challenging [to catch]."

It's easier to bag one in the eastern United States, simply because there are a lot more of them. Even so, turkey hunters everywhere regard themselves as hunting purists: uninterested in instant gratification or a one-time kill, but willing to go home empty-handed while relishing the sport of tracking the birds.

"You're not going to get a bird until you pay your dues and the turkey gods smile upon you," said Padden, the Fountain Valley turkey hunter and Boeing engineer who bagged a turkey last year.

The wild turkey, hunters say, is armed with defenses few people know about.

Even though they grow to 25 pounds, they can fly, unlike their domesticated cousins.

"They don't just fly 30 feet, either," said Jimmy Rizzo, a Garden Grove man who sometimes works as a hunting guide in the San Bernardino Mountains. "These birds can run 30 miles an hour . . . by their third step. And they can fly 20 miles if they wanted to. You've probably never seen a turkey fly because they have a way of keeping a low profile."

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