For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time to connect with family and community, reflect on the significance of those who came before us, and to acknowledge and celebrate our heritage. In addition to the tradition of eating turkey on this holiday, in southern Arizona we have an opportunity to observe an ancestor from which our favorite meal evolved; our local wild turkey, the Gould’s turkey.

The Gould’s turkey is one of five subspecies of wild turkeys. It was named by J. Gould while traveling in Mexico in 1856. These turkeys can be found in northern Mexico, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona. If you are on Fort Huachuca you have a good chance of seeing Gould’s turkeys gathered in small flocks near the parade grounds.

Today the Gould’s is the only subspecies found in this area, according to recent DNA studies. Gould’s are the biggest of the wild turkeys, and have long legs, large feet, and large center tail feathers with a white band. The males can weigh up to 26 pounds, averaging 18 pounds and the hens weigh 12 pounds. Their favorite habitat is at elevations from 4,500 to 6,000 feet and they prefer areas with steep and rocky canyons. The males, gobblers, strut by fanning their extensive tail fans and gobble to attract hens.

The hens brood in secretive sites near a water source. Their nests are scratched out depressions in the soil with up to 12 eggs that take about 2 weeks to lay and almost a month to incubate. The hens, ever vigilant, turn the eggs about once an hour during the month-long incubation.

The young are out of the nest on day two, scratching for insects and in a few weeks their diet transitions to oak acorns, grass seeds, leaves, and other plant mater. Meanwhile, the gobblers carry on their strutting social life away from the nest area.

The Gould’s turkey has become very common in the Huachuca Mountains due to an intensive translocation of the birds from Mexico. The translocation was carried out by Arizona Fish and Game Department, National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), the Huachuca Gould’s chapter of the NWTF, and the Mexican government.

The first translocation of the Gould’s was in 1983. Originally only nine were released. A few years later 12 more were released. In 1989 standardized survey routes were established for counting turkeys and recording the subsequent data. By the 1990s the populations began increasing, and the populations today are estimated to be at least 500 birds in the Huachucas. As a result of translocating 600 to 700 birds from the Huachuca population to the Chiricahua Mountains and other Sky Island ranges, the population is now estimated to be 1500 to 2,000 turkeys in southern Arizona.

The natural populations of the Gould’s turkey were decimated by market hunters and lack of hunting regulations from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930’s. Prior to this, they were so common that the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona were named for the bird. ‘Chiricahua’ is an Opata word meaning wild turkey, or range of wild turkeys, according to a Jesuit, Juan Nentvig, who wrote between 1750 and 1767.

According to Britany Oleson, Game Warden and Wildlife Biologist for the hunting areas 35A and 35B, hunting the Gould’s turkey is monitored by science guided management. The tag limits are based on a multilayered approach using controlled population counts and algorithms. A hunter applying for a tag averages a 22 year wait before being drawn. The hunts are spring shotguns or archery hunts. A tag allows for one tom or “bearded bird.” Another method of acquiring a tag is through two tags available for auction, which typically go for between $3,000 to $7,000 per tag.

This year in area 35A, located in the Huachucas and eastern side of the Canelos, 30 tags are available in two separate hunts of 15 tags per hunt. In 35B, on the west side of the Canelos, 12 tags are available in two different hunts of 6 tags per hunt.

All wild bird populations in North America have decreased by 30% in the past 50 years amounting to an estimated three billion birds.

The NWTF and devoted chapter members such as the Gould’s Chapter are compassionate about conserving these turkeys. Members who protect and promote the Gould’s are also promoting conservation of numerous other species that need habitat safe from unregulated hunting, pesticides, and destructive land use practices. In the early 1900’s all wild turkey populations in the US had been reduced to numbers threatening extinction. Conservation of the Gould’s and other wild turkeys is a great success story that promotes hunting, outdoor recreation, conservation, and a healthy environment.

The Huachuca Gould’s Chapter is one of eight NWTF chapters in Arizona and is the only chapter dedicated to the Gould’s turkey. This passionate and energetic group held their 21st banquet this year which benefits 12 to 16 conservation events every year.

Since 1999 they have contributed over $400,000 towards their many outreach programs, including funding 34 water projects, three habitat fencing projects, wildlife ramps, youth programs, and ethics and sportsmanship events. This local chapter contributes to many family events, women in the outdoors programs, Safari Club International, Southern Arizona Quail Forever, Boy Scouts of America, and an essay contest with scholarship awards from $500 locally to $10,000 nationally.

The NWTF goals for the coming year are to conserve and enhance 4 million more acres of habitat, provide access to 500,000 more acres for outdoor recreation and recruit 1.5 million more hunters this year. If interested in helping with this valuable project, more information can be found on their website at Huachuca Gould’s Chapter, P.O. Box 1257, Hereford, AZ. Donations can be mailed to Huachuca Gould’s Chapter, c/o John Millican, 9035 E. Chandler Lane, Herford, AZ 85615.

This Thanksgiving holiday let us give thanks for the efforts of all those who have made the recovery of Gould’s Turkey and all wild turkeys possible and hope that this species will be with us for many holidays to come.