Wildlife is found across Texas, including wild turkeys. Hear the story of how these birds almost disappeared but were saved by conservation practices. We’ll also discuss how to call them to you, the 3 different kinds, and turkey harems. For you locavores, we’ve got pro tips for hunting and cooking turkey.
Cecilia Nasti: Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Additional support comes from the Wildlife Restoration Program, which funds research on Wild Turkey Habitat Selection in the Texas Oaks and Prairies .
The first time you’re in the field and hear their unique call rise above the dawn chorus on an early spring morning, and then witness the showmanship of a raised tail—feathers fanned in a bold and dominant display—that moment will be etched indelibly into your memory.
If you haven’t guessed…we’re talking turkey on the podcast—wild turkeys. Restoring them…calling them in the field…and eating the ones you harvest.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Native to North America, wild turkeys once blanketed the landscape. Early historical records waxed poetic about the abundance of this magnificent bird that European colonists found upon their arrival to the New World. Sadly, as human populations climbed, wild turkey populations dwindled throughout their range.
In the late 1800s, unregulated hunting and reduction of habitat diminished populations of wild turkeys across the landscape. By 1920, the number of Texas’ wild Rio Grande turkeys reached a low of 100,000 birds. Luckily, conservation efforts throughout the US during the 20th century provide us with a restoration success story. Especially in Texas.
Jason Hardin: The Rio Grande is not the most abundant subspecies of turkey in the country, but in Texas the Rio is definitely king. We have probably five to six hundred thousand birds in Texas. We have some of the highest harvest rates in the country. And some of the highest numbers of hunters in the country. We’re a destination state for people to come shoot their Rio. Hi, I’m Jason Hardin with Texas Parks and Wildlife. I’m the turkey program leader for the state of Texas.
Wild turkeys have an ecosystem role to play as predator and prey. They feed on insects, seeds and plants, helping to manage those populations. While, turkey eggs, young poults and adult birds become food for reptiles, larger birds and mammals. It’s the circle of life. Of course, hunters also have their sights set on turkey—especially in the spring.
Preferred turkey habitat includes a water source, tall trees for roosting and escape from predators and open pastures that provide food for adults and foraging opportunities for poults. Through harvest restrictions and restoration efforts, Rio Grande numbers have rebounded across the state. Today this big bird struts its stuff from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande valley.
Jason: And he’s located throughout the central part of the state. Generally, north of Austin—that would be the I-35 corridor—and west out to the edge of the Trans Pecos, say, the Pecos River. [There are] a few small island populations of Rios out in the Trans Pecos. But that country’s pretty inhospitable.
[SFX—GOBBLE/TURKEYS IN FIELD]
Turkey restoration efforts have been ongoing since the 1930s. Today, we find wild turkey populations in 223 of the 254 counties in Texas—with spring and fall hunting seasons in 187 of them.
Watch it now…The Rio Grande is just one of three subspecies of wild turkey found in Texas—the other two are the Eastern and the Merriam. The Eastern subspecies inhabits nearly the entire eastern half of the US…but struggles in its range in east Texas, with a population of only about 10-thousand birds.
[Jason Hardin—26] Primarily in two populations in northeast Texas along the Red River, north of Highway 82 for the most part. And then southeast Texas around Jasper, Newton, Polk, Nacogdoches and some of that country. And one thing that we’re working on right now is trying to tie those two populations together. So, we’re still doing eastern turkey restoration all these years later. We recently got some birds from Missouri and North Carolina. About 60 birds so far this year  of an 80-bird goal for one of our restoration sites.
We’ll touch on turkey restoration in a moment. Before that, I want to say—or have Jason Hardin say—a few words about the final subspecies in our Texas turkey trio: the Merriam. Although the podcast will focus only on the Rio and Eastern.
Jason: It’s a mountainous bird that’s found throughout the Colorado Mountains. But we have a small population that would have come down from New Mexico into the Guadalupe Mountains. Actually, in the 1980s we established a population in the Davis Mountains. And those birds are still there. We estimate that we probably have about five hundred of those individuals based on some DNA work that was done through Sul Ross [University]. The Davis Mountains have been surrounded by Rio Grandes. And so now the Merriam—they’ve kind of been almost bred out of existence in that part of the state. The Rio Grande subspecies is breeding with the Merriam subspecies and creating a “Merrio”. And so now we have this hybrid bird out on that landscape. The Merriam was always just a real isolated island population. The Rio Grande turkey is definitely the “King of Texas”.
And this king reigns over most of the state. TPWD and partners trapped tens of thousands of Rio Grande turkeys over the decades; they were restocked to suitable habitats throughout the state, successfully restoring the bird to its historic range.
To ensure the continued success of the Rio, Jason Hardin says TPWD is in the fourth year of a five-year statewide turkey banding study, which will help the ongoing management of Texas’ Rio populations.
Jason: And we’re putting bands on around a thousand plus birds annually. And we’ll look at that at an eco-region scale, see what our harvest is. So far, it’s been around three-percent. But, time will tell because these birds have long lives. If we can look at the harvest rate at an eco-region scale, based on this banding data, and pair that up with our small game survey, which is a survey that goes out to several thousand hunters every year, then we’ll get an idea based on harvest and harvest rate to what those densities are in those eco-regions. So, if we see an increase of harvest rate in the future, or a decrease in harvest, it’s something that we can go out and try to make some adjustments to our regulations and season timing to impact in whatever fashion needs to be impacted. If harvest rates go down, maybe we provide more opportunities for hunters. If they go up significantly, then maybe we start pulling back from some of that liberal season structure.
Restoration success has been harder to come by with the eastern subspecies. It’s often been a case of two steps forward and one step back. Hardin says the agency attempted various strategies, including releasing pen-raised turkeys in that region.
Jason: Probably for too long. We continued pen-raised restoration efforts until 1979, where other states had walked away as early as 1959. So, our restoration was probably delayed by about 20 years.
Pen-raised birds lack the benefit of a parent’s experience and guidance, such as how to avoid predation as well as other life skills that can only get passed down from adult to child. So, when these pen-raised birds were released into the wild…
Jason: It’s hard to expect them to be anywhere near successful. So, it was something that we put a lot of time, money and effort into. We failed along with 99 percent of the other states and organizations that tried that approach. It’s been peer reviewed over and over again as something that just does not work.
One key difference between the successful restoration of the Rio Grande and the restoration challenges with the Eastern subspecies boils down to availability. When it comes to Rios, the bird’s range is statewide, so biologists can trap and relocate stock from within Texas. However, restoration of the eastern subspecies involves bringing birds to Texas from other parts of the US, which involves a cost.
#gobble# Everybody Ready? This first group, let’s go ahead open that second flap. Dump ‘em…let ‘em go….
Jason: In 1979, we brought our first Eastern wild turkeys over from Louisiana—put them in Tyler county. They did pretty good. In 1987, working with the National Wild Turkey Federation, their Making Tracks Program, we started working with lots of states bringing turkeys into East Texas, using what we referred to at the time as a “block stocking” approach.
Working on a county-by-county basis, biologists released 15 to 20 birds among five to ten locations across a county, at a cost of hundreds of dollars for each bird released—all of which is paid for with stamp dollars, and at no cost to landowners. After working in a county for about two years they’d move on.
Jason: We were successful; today we have about 13 counties with an open [eastern turkey hunting] season. But, when you consider that we stocked about 59 counties, we’re nowhere near as successful as we’d like.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Raul Lopez, currently with the Natural Resource Institute at Texas A & M, found Texas turkey stocking could be improved in two ways: 1) by releasing 70 to 80 birds at a time, called super stocking, and 2) by releasing them into more suitable habitat.
Jason: So, we funded some research in 2007through Stephen F. Austin [University], and we tried to do empirical testing of Dr. Lopez’ super stocking model. It was just a mathematical model up to that point. And so, through SFA we released 80 birds per site at four sites in East Texas. And one thing we noticed that by year two we were seeing survival and recruitment relative to other Southeastern states with established populations. So, we felt like we had something to work with.
But they still had to determine how to best evaluate turkey habitat.
Jason: So, we went back to the drawing board; so, from 2009 through 2013, we developed a habitat suitability index—just a way to score the habitat. We took less consideration on the size of the property, or number of locked gates, and how many species of oak you had. And more about: what does the vegetation look like? Can I see through the woods? Do I have brood ring cover? Do I have grasses and weeds that are boot to knee high? Do I have low-growing woody cover to provide nesting habitat? We put a lot of emphasis on that. So, we started evaluating habitat in 2013, and got back into the restoration business in 2014.
[SFX—TURKEY IN THE FIELD]
Over the last six years, TPW has released more than 750 eastern wild turkeys at nine sites.
Jason: We’ve seen production at every site, and we’ve seen recruitment. So, we’re very excited about the process so far. We think we’re going to have some success for that. We’re developing some focal landscapes, because we can’t just put turkeys everywhere. We don’t want to create these island populations anymore. We want to create large, contiguous landscapes filled with turkeys. So, we have our Neches River priority landscape that goes from Angelina National Forest, all the way to Lake Palestine. And we have our Sulphur River landscape that goes all the way from Cass County and White Oak Creek Management area, all the way to Cooper Lake WMA. And our goal is to fill those landscapes with birds over time in the best habitat we can find. So those areas can serve as source populations, and over time they can distribute across the landscape and tie those populations together.
[MUS—BOUND TO TRUTH]
When these efforts are successful, then we—like our like our ancestors before us—will bear witness to the gift of vast populations of wild turkey in Texas roaming Texas.
Coming up: how to call turkeys during your spring hunt. But first….
You’re listening to Under the Texas Sky… from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m your turkey-loving producer and host…Cecilia Nasti.
Support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation allows us to bring you stories from Under the Texas Sky. In fact, since 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $190 million to conserve the lands, waters and wildlife of our state. You can help by becoming a member. Find out how at WeWillNotBeTamed.org
[MUS—HEYWOOD BANKS—TURKEY BIRD SONG]
Steve Hall/Cecilia: #Turkey Call# Hi. I’m Steve hall. I’m the hunter education coordinator with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. And we teach people how to be safe, responsible, knowledgeable and involved in hunting and shooting [best] practices.
Cecilia: What were you doing, and what was that in your mouth?
Steve: This is a diaphragm turkey call. And what I was doing was mimicking the sounds of a hen turkey. And in the wild, you know, the hen turkey in the springtime lets the gobblers know where she is, and she’s ready to be mated and lay on a clutch of eggs.
It’s spring turkey hunting season in Texas. And with lots of mature Rio Grande toms across their range, tenacious Texas hunters should have a good shot at a long beard this spring. Wildlife biologists with Texas Parks and Wildlife say beneficial weather conditions over fall and winter suggest a productive nesting season, which could make for challenging hunting ahead.
One of the greatest thrills—some say the greatest thrill—is when you successfully call a tom to you by mimicking a hen.
Steve: To lure in a big gobbler is kind of like a trophy or an award for a lot of turkey hunters. But, truthfully, just calling in a bachelor tom [is exciting]—we call those silent toms—because they’ll come in silent. [That’s] because if they make a sound, the big tom will kick their booty.
Booty-kicking aside, calling in older, cagy gobblers offers hunters a challenge.
Steve: It’s kind of like a chess match, you know. Because, here’s a gobbler and as he’s going around the woods with his harem; he’s expecting you to come to him if you’re a lone hen out there.
And so, the chess match begins, because you’re trying to lure him in to a lone hen, when he has all these other hens around him.
By the way, only male turkeys gobble. Steve says biology drives tom turkeys to leave their harems to seek out these lone females.
Steve Hall/Cecilia: In the springtime, they’re ready to mate. And they’re going to mate with several hens. And as they do, they have that biological urge to make sure that they have the biggest harem that they can support. Because, you have all these other young toms, young gobblers looking out to try and mate some of those hens, too. And, of course, he’s actively defending that harem. Well, here you have a lone hen talking over there…. And the biology of it all is that every day that he breeds a hen, she goes lays an egg into her nest, and then once the clutch is ready, she incubates them. So, when she’s incubating, she’s sitting on her nest a longer period of time. So, the gobblers get a little lonely towards the end of that cycle. And as they get a little lonelier, they get a little more desperate to find some more hens out there, because they’re still ready to breed.
Cecilia: And so is that tip hidden in there as to when to go out and turkey hunt? You know, wait until they start getting lonely further into the season?
Steve: Yes. There’s a magical two weeks…
…during the spring turkey season, and as you go across Texas from south to north, that two weeks changes. And you can look on one of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s APPs to see when the high time is for turkey season, in terms of those two weeks—that the males, or toms, are really receptive to calling and really receptive to luring them in.
You have a choice when deciding how to call in a turkey. You can use friction calls, mouth calls or natural voice.
Cecilia: That’s Steve Hall using his natural voice to imitate a “gobble”.
Steve: And as you hear that in the darkness of a roost, you know, that’s what gets your blood pumping as a hunter, because you’re—oh, you there they are—you know. Now I know where you’re at and I know how to position myself, hopefully for a clean kill later on.
You might choose to imitate a gobble instead of a hen’s cluck, to try and fool dominant male turkeys that there’s a newcomer in the vicinity that’s going to put forth a challenge.
Natural voice calling doesn’t depend on anything but your innate ability and some practice. A mouth call may involve using a diaphragm as Steve demonstrated earlier in this segment.
Because turkeys have exceptional eyesight, the smallest movement can alert them to your presence. Natural voice and mouth calls allow hunters to remain nearly motionless while beckoning birds. Not so with friction calls. Although those types of calls are effective…
…they may involve scraping a paddle against a hollow wooden chamber …
…or dragging a peg across a slate surface. Movements that when spotted by the sharp-eyed turkeys may cause the birds to flee.
Hunters can also use locator calls to aggravate roosting toms into giving away their position. Locator calls include owl hoots, crow calls, coyote howls, peacock calls as well as turkey gobbles. Locator calls are meant to induce a reflex gobble from a boss tom. And this provides hunters with a general idea of the roost site, which allows them to get into proper position before the sun comes up.
It’s not unusual for turkey hunters to take more than one type of call into the field.
Steve: So, I might have a box call on me, I might have a diaphragm call on me, and I’ll have a slate call on me at the very least in terms of calls. And then I might have an owl call and a peacock call; I use a peacock for a roosting call.
[SFX—PEACOCK LOCATOR CALL]
Those are about the different calls you want on you when you’re turkey hunting. Make different little sounds, because all the sounds of the turkeys are a little bit different here and there. And if you can match the boss gobbler, that might just be the sound that turns him on to your location.
Even if you’d rather shoot turkey with a camera…
[SFX—CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS]
…instead of a shotgun, learning how to call them to you, will give you the best shot possible.
Hunters, meanwhile, should refer to the Outdoor Annual on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website or APP for spring hunting locations, bag limits and what to do post-harvest.
This is Under the Texas Sky from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
We’re not done talking turkey…just yet. Once you harvest one of these birds, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to eat it. However, whenever you do eat it, to ensure that you end up with meat that is flavorsome and succulent, you need to know what age bird to harvest and then how to handle the bird in the field and in the kitchen. To help us understand best practices for this poultry, I put a call into Susan Ebert.
Susan Ebert: And I am a hunter, angler, forager and cookbook author who loves to work with wild game.
Susan lives north of Houston with her husband Shannon Tompkins, a reporter and columnist with the Houston Chronicle. Her cookbook is The Field to Table Cookbook: Gardening, Foraging, Fishing, & Hunting. Susan knows a thing or two or three or ten about hunting for and preparing wild turkey.
Susan: The way that I start out is making sure that I have a cooler full of ice in the back of the truck or nearby at camp. And then, while my husband might be pursuing the wily ancient long-beard—with a 10 or 12-inch beard—I will hone in on the 2 to 3-year-old birds. Birds that are in young adulthood that are really in their prime as table fare, as the old birds will tend to get really tough and stringy.
Once you’ve bagged a bird, tag it immediately. And if it is an eastern turkey, it’s mandatory to report your harvest; you can do that with Parks and Wildlife’s My Hunt Harvest APP for iPhone and Android.
Now it’s time to work quickly; the sooner you get your bird on ice, the less chance of spoilage. Before that, though, you’ve got to pluck it—a job best done outdoors as it does get messy.
Susan: Turkey feathers actually come off really quite easily. Grab a handful; you pull in the direction that the feathers are growing, which means you’re much less likely to tear the flesh.
Unless you got a clean head and neck shot, check the de-feathered turkey for pellet wounds and remove any that you find from the flesh. I can tell you from experience it’s not pleasant to bite down on one of those at dinner.
If you’re squeamish, you may want to say “la…la…la” loudly for the next minute while Susan Ebert explains this next step: how to disembowel the fowl.
Susan: Take off the bird’s head, and for the time being, leave the neck on the turkey. Then go in through the rear cavity and pull out all the entrails. Now, while you’re doing that, make sure that you keep what I like to call the “wobbly bits”. Save the heart and the gizzard. And then save the liver. With the liver, all you need to do is open it up and pull the small greenish gallbladder out with a sharp knife. The gizzard, you’ll want to open and remove the contents and just pull off the inside lining. The heart doesn’t need any special treatment. I keep those in a separate zip-lock bag; then once you’re back to turkey camp or where you’ve got a water source and where you’ve got your ice, rise the bird inside and outside thoroughly. Rise off all your wobbly bits. I’ll probably just put my little zip-lock bag of wobbly bits inside the turkey for safe keeping. I’ll put the whole turkey, plucked and cleaned inside a food grade kitchen bag and put it at the bottom of a cooler and then cover the entire field bag with ice.
When you get the bird home and start prepping it for cooking, this is when you remove its neck…
Susan: When you remove the neck, you will notice that under the skin on the chest, a wild gobbler has what is called a breast sponge. And, what it is, is fat storage for that gobbler during breeding season. Gobblers may have up to ten percent of their entire body weight in that breast sponge. Now, it’s very weird looking tissue. And some people will cut it off and throw it away. And I say oh…no…no…no. Leave that breast sponge on the turkey breast, because what you have is a built-in fat blanket to keep that meat moist while it’s cooking. It’ll shrink substantially during the cooking process. You can discard it afterwards, before you start carving.
Susan Ebert says the difference in flavor between the meat of a wild turkey and that of a domestic bird is like the difference you experience between a store-bought tomato and a tomato just picked from your own garden. It tastes like what it is—just better. With wild turkey, there’s a deep, nutty, rich flavor you just do not get with domestic grocery store birds. Aside from the breast sponge, turkeys lack fat. And fat helps to keep meat succulent during the cooking process. Susan says the following technique can help your wild turkey retain moisture.
[Susan Ebert—27] What I like to do with my turkeys is to brine them for 24 to 48 hours. Your brine can be as simple as a couple gallons of water with a cup of Kosher salt and a cup of brown sugar in it. You can add allspice, cloves, cinnamon sticks, sage, thyme—whatever appeals to you to flavor that brine.
Low and slow is the way to cook a wild turkey, and Susan prefers using a smoker for this task—although, she says, an oven roasted, spatchcocked bird is also tasty. If you brine the bird, let it air dry until it is tacky to the touch. Susan uses fruit wood to smoke the birds and puts more than water in the water pan.
Susan: I’ll use half organic apple juice, half water. Throw in some aromatics: sage, thyme, oregano; maybe some allspice and black pepper and cinnamon stick all crushed up. And not let the temperature get over 225 degrees.
Once the internal temperature of the turkey reaches 160, take it out of the smoker and tent it with aluminum foil. The turkey will continue to “cook” off the heat and reach a safe internal temperature of 165-degrees. Let it rest for 20 minutes before carving. You’ll be glad you didn’t wait until Thanksgiving to bite into this bird.
Susan: The one thing that I would add that we always look forward to is that all the little bits that are left over get spiced up with raisins and almonds added and make wonderful little empanadas that go in our pockets next time we go afield, or—hey—even when we go to work.
Sounds good to me. Didn’t I tell you that Susan Ebert knows her way around a wild turkey? Her cookbook is The Field to Table Cookbook: Gardening, Foraging, Fishing, & Hunting.
[MUS—ACOUSTIC LICK STING]
Remember Jason Hardin from earlier in the podcast? He takes his daughter Lindsey and his son Marshall spring turkey hunting with him. And he spoke with them about their experiences in the field for our Shout Out to the Wild Segment.
Jason: So Lindsey, how old are you?
Jason: What’s your favorite part about turkey hunting?
Lindsey: Um, I really like the excitement of it and how you get to go outside and stay. It’s fun.
Jason: So, have you killed a turkey before?
Jason: Can you tell me a little about that time when you got the bird?
Lindsey: When I got my first bird, I remember that I was in the stand, and we were about to leave, I believe, because it had been awhile. And then, from the corner of the stand, we saw a turkey just walking up. A pretty big one. And he came up to our decoy bird and like started like ruffling around it. And then I shot him.
Jason: And then you shot him. Were you pretty excited?
Jason: And then, uh, we brought it home. What did we do with the tail fan?
Lindsey: Oh. It’s in my room. It’s right behind me at the moment.
Jason: Alright. Thank you.
Lindsey: You’re welcome.
Jason: Marshall, how old are you?
Marshall: I’m nine.
Jason: Tell me what you think about turkey hunting.
Marshall: It is awesome! It is cool that you can shoot turkeys and keep their tails on your wall. Well, their fans. And it’s one of my favorite things to do, because I actually get to be the one who shoots.
Jason: How many turkey hunts have you been on that you can remember?
Jason: You’ve been on four. And how many turkeys have you taken.
Jason: Two. What was your favorite turkey hunt?
Marshall: My fourth one, because that was my biggest.
Jason: That was your biggest turkey? Can you tell me about that hunt?
Marshall: Oh, well, actually. We slept in our truck. Oh, actually mommy’s car.
Jason: Mommy’s 4-Runner. Was that comfortable?
Marshall: Um. Medium.
Jason: Ha. Medium.
Marshall: Actually, I think after we did that, and I woke up, we went to the place with the gun and got into the popup blind. And we waited, and we were right by their nesting ground on the tree. By the tree.
Jason: Where they were roosting?
Marshall: Uh huh.
Jason: We got pretty close to their roost, huh?
Marshall: Yeah. And, also, whenever they got off [the tree] there were just a ton in front of us. Just a ton. And whenever I shot one—it was actually pretty far away, but I got a great shot. And make sure you shoot in the middle of the neck, because the bullets spread out.
Jason: Yep. Shotgun shells.
Marshall: So, you might shoot one if you do this.
Thanks for the advice, Marshall. And thank you Jason for wrangling your kiddos for the podcast. Check the Outdoor Annual on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website or App to see in which counties spring turkey hunting is still underway.
Also, if you want to share your thoughts about the outdoors on our Shout Out to the Wild segment, visit underthetexassky.org and click on the “get involved” link on the menu bar.
[MUS—Orbit Your Soul]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available for streaming or download at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Thanks to my colleague Karen Loke for providing audio from an east Texas turkey release.
We used the Turkey Bird song by Heywood Banks with permission from the artist.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
Major support for this podcast comes from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation: Conserving Our Wild Things and Wild Places for Over 25 Years.
Additional support comes from the Wildlife Restoration Program, which funds research on Wild Turkey Habitat Selection in the Texas Oaks and Prairies .
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.
[SFX – Gobble]