Hunting Turkeys (& Tyrannosaurus Rex)

The toms are likely preoccupied with chasing hens. I opt to sit tight and see if one eventually gets curious and saunters up the ridge for a look.
Merriam’s turkeys in the high and wild San Juan Mountains.
Merriam’s turkeys in the high and wild San Juan Mountains. Photo by © David Lien.

It seems as inevitable as death itself for those of us who are addicted to the booming “Gobble-obble-obble!” of wild turkeys reverberating through the fields, woodlands and mountains during springtime. As memories of fall hunts fade and winter takes hold, a new year begins and thoughts of turkey hunting bubble up in our collective psyche.

The thunderous gobble of a wild turkey is one of the most recognizable sounds in all of nature. A large part of what attracts me—and many others, I suspect—to turkey hunting is simply the sound of toms sounding off. Every time I’m throttled by a booming gobble, I am reminded why chasing Merriam’s in the high and wild San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado is one of my favorite hunts.

Mix in the strutting, spitting and drumming experienced when a tom closes to shooting distance and you have an irresistible hunting combo. “I do not hunt turkeys because I want to,” wrote turkey hunting’s poet laureate, Colonel (retired) Tom Kelly, in Tenth Legion. “I hunt them because I have to.” Given the primordial instincts and urges these charismatic birds trigger in hunters, perhaps there’s more to them than meets the eye, as Tom suggests.

Wishbones

The furcula (the technical term for a wishbone) is formed by the fusion of two collarbones at the sternum. It’s an important part of a bird’s flight mechanics—a connecting point for muscles and a strengthening brace for wings. The bone is elastic and acts as a spring that stores and releases energy during flapping. Ever try to snap a wishbone before it’s been dried?

Scientists once thought the furcula was unique to birds, explains George Frederick, in “The Surprising Connection Between Turkeys and T. Rex.” However, now paleontologists tell us that the bone dates back more than 150 million years to two-legged, meat-eating dinosaurs, including the Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Although these reptilian movie stars didn’t fly, Frederick points out that their furculas likely served as structural supports as the dinos dispatched/ate their prey.

Tyrannosaurus rex  at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC).
Tyrannosaurus rex at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC). Photo by © David Lien.

The furcula is a key component of the commonly accepted theory that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs. “From museum displays to … feature films, Tyrannosaurus rex has been celebrated as one of the biggest, meanest and ugliest predatory dinosaurs of all time,” says Riley Black, in “Was Tyrannosaurus a Big Turkey?” (Smithsonian Magazine: 11/23/11).

Where did the name “dinosaur” come from? In 1842, English biologist Sir Richard Owen dubbed them “dinosaurian” from Greek words meaning “terrible lizard.” “The image of this long-extinct carnivore as the apex of the apex predators has a nearly unstoppable amount of cultural inertia,” Riley adds. As stated by Buzz Belknap an Loie Belknap Evans in the “Dinosaur River Guide” from 2015, scientists have found dinosaur remains throughout the world, including Colorado.

Turkeys & T. Rex

Tyrannosaurus rex
Tyrannosaurus rex. Photo by © David Lien.

Colorado is also home to an abundance of turkeys. During the last three decades, Colorado’s turkey population has surged to more than 35,000 and the abundant birds are now found in 53 of the state’s 64 counties. Colorado has two subspecies of wild turkeys: the Merriam’s, which are found in the foothills and mountain meadows west of I-25, and the Rio Grande, which were introduced to riparian corridors on the Eastern Plains.

If you’re interested in seeing the turkey’s T. Rex ancestor, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center (RMDRC) in Woodland Park is one option. The museum displays fossil organisms of North America’s Late Cretaceous, including dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles and fish.

Tyrannosaurus rex was fast and deadly, killing with its bone-crushing teeth and the phenomenal force of its bite. Tyrannosaurus had a huge 5-foot skull with powerful jaws lined with 10-inch teeth. Today, more than 35 specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex have been located and the RMDRC skeleton is, apparently, one of the largest and most complete on record.

Turkey Hunt

San Juan Mountains turkey camp.
San Juan Mountains turkey camp. Photo by © David Lien.

With the first hints of dawn gracing the eastern horizon (on April 15, 2019) in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I listen intently for the sounds of gobbles reverberating across the frozen landscape. By 6:00 a.m., four toms are sounding off from the roost: two west of camp and two more to the north. I decide to sit tight until daybreak, when they’ll fly down, then start my approach.

In the words of Colonel Kelly, in Tenth Legion: “All kinds of things can happen during this procedure, which in military circles is called a movement to contact.” After daybreak, I have two toms responding to shock gobble crow calls from a nearby meadow to the north. A low ridge runs above and alongside the meadow.

Tom turkey
Tom turkey. Photo by © David Lien.

After executing a movement to contact (i.e., gaining the ridgeline), the toms are still gobbling in the meadow, but they’re ignoring my slate and wingbone calls. However, they are responding to crow calls, so I haven’t scared them off with my mediocre (at best) yelping and purring. I move cautiously along the ridge to gain a view of the meadow, but see no turkeys.

The toms are likely preoccupied chasing hens. I opt to sit tight and see if one eventually gets curious and saunters up the ridge for a look, knowing that it’s not unusual for toms to come in silent. At 7:30 a.m., I spot movement on the ridge. An alert tom walks cautiously behind a tree some 15 yards away, searching for a hen. He moves into the clear and it’s over.

A successful turkey harvest.
A successful turkey harvest. Photo by © David Lien.

“I hiked a mile of pines before I heard what I really came to hear—the haunting gobble of a wild turkey, a sound as surreal as an elk’s bugle,” E. Donnall Thomas Jr. wrote in “Turkey Time” on StalkHuntingGuide.com. “On a calm morning one can carry for miles …” And in the words of America’s greatest hunter-conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt (aka, Theodore Rex), in Lamar Underwood’s Theodore Roosevelt On Hunting, “To kill a wary old gobbler … by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

For additional information on turkey hunting in Colorado, see these Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), and related, resources:


Apply Now for Spring Limited Licenses
Spring turkey limited license applications opened on January 7, 2020. Apply online. The application and application corrections deadline is February 4, 2020 8 pm MT


David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.” For additional information see: “David A. Lien Recognized by Field & Stream as ‘Hero of Conservation.’” AmmoLand.com: 7/2/14.

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