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Turkey Hunters Seek Birds' Roots

Now-extinct ice age fowl lived in the Southland. The modern variety is considered nonnative.

November 16, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

Forty thousand years ago, ice age turkeys roamed the Westside, birds about as common as the pigeons pecking on the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard today. The turkeys roosted, gobbled and most likely yelped for help when at least 700 of them died in the La Brea Tar Pits.

Now, the Page Museum's little-known collection of 11,000 fossil turkey bones is the subject of a yearlong study in which scientists are trying to compare and contrast the original California turkey with wild turkeys of today. Are they closely related? Do they look the same? Eat the same food?

And who would care more about wild turkeys than an ornithologist?

Turkey hunters.

The National Wild Turkey Federation, a South Carolina-based hunting group, paid $37,000 to fund the study as part of its long-term goal to increase the wild turkey population for California's 23,500 turkey hunters.

The state Fish and Game Department halted releases of wild turkeys in 1996, and has no further plans for more since two environmental groups filed lawsuits, claiming the birds could destroy plants and protected species.

The hunters think that, if the study proves a close relationship between the ice age turkey and the modern wild turkey, they will be able to argue that the birds are native to California and shouldn't pose a threat if more are released.

"It could counter objections that folks have in California about turkeys," said Tom Hughes, a wildlife biologist and the hunting federation's research grant coordinator. "If they are not nonnative, what's your objection?"

The problem is, the ice age turkey has been extinct for about 10,000 years.

And the argument over whether it should be considered a native Californian could go on for ages.

"Every agency has its own opinion," said Pam Muick, executive director of the California Native Plant Society, one of the groups that filed a lawsuit opposing a turkey release in San Diego.

"There are tremendous number of opinions about what is natural and when does being a native start."

Exacerbating the fights over wild turkeys in California is the proliferation of the bird in Sonoma County, which has angered grape farmers and others who say it is gobbling crops.

That has prompted the Fish and Game Department to develop a plan that in part would allow farmers to kill turkeys on their land.

All the turkey talk makes Zbigniew Bochenski's eyes glaze over. He's just not interested in politics.

Bochenski is the avian paleontologist who made a name for himself at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Krakow with a comparative study of crows. After an international search, he was chosen by the Page Museum for the turkey study.

"Here I am at the famous La Brea Tar Pits that I've heard about since I was a boy," he said. "And here I get to study what is almost your national bird."

Except for their black, tar-stained color, the ice age turkey bones look like the bones you will be scraping off your plate next week. Leg bones, wing bones, beaks and breast bones have been harvested from the tar pits over the decades and stored like piece of jewelry in flat boxes.

A couple hundred of them have been glued together to form an ice age turkey skeleton on display at the museum next to the tar pits.

The turkey-hunter group did what it does best to help the study: shot some wild turkeys, in addition to collecting some road kill and pulling turkeys from traps to supply Bochenski with numerous specimens for his bone-to-bone comparison.

Working full time in the museum's basement, Bochenski measures each bone with a precise digital ruler that automatically enters data into a computer and creates graphs and charts.

He sketches the intricate points of every bone and carefully inspects each ridge to detect and calculate how the muscles were attached.

The fossil bone collection is especially rare because it contains the remains of birds of all ages, juvenile through adult, allowing scientists to tell the story of what were probably flourishing lives and slow, violent deaths.

All turkeys, even those that lived on the Westside during the last ice age, need permanent sources of standing water and trees for roosting to survive because they are not migratory.

"Whether or not those conditions were widespread in Southern California during the last ice age or whether those conditions were very localized, we really don't know," said Kenneth Campbell, curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and director of the turkey study.

Campbell said that, because turkeys are highly social birds, they communicate loudly with gobbles, yelps and screeches -- sounds that can be heard over the phone like Muzak when a call is placed to the national office of the turkey hunters.

When their claws got stuck in the gooey tar of the pits, they called for help -- only to draw more turkeys into the deadly sludge.

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