The wild turkey’s return to Nebraska is one of hunter-based conservation’s great success stories. Six decades ago, there were no turkeys in Nebraska. Now Nebraska’s turkey flock is a puzzle for scientists. The reintroduction of wild birds to Nebraska—many of which had mixed with domestic birds—has created a genetic tapestry researchers are only just beginning to unravel. Many traveling hunters know that you can kill a Merriam’s, Rio Grande, and Eastern gobbler in Nebraska. But how pure are those subspecies?
The first documented release of wild turkeys in Nebraska occurred in 1959, when 28 Merriam’s birds were translocated to Pine Ridge in the northwestern portion of the state. Although the Merriam’s subspecies was not believed to have been previously present in Nebraska, that flock flourished and quickly expanded their range into southeastern Wyoming and South Dakota. Two years later, 518 Rio Grande/domestic hybrid birds were released in the riparian forests in the central and south-central portions of Nebraska deemed suitable turkey habitat. That release was much less successful, and in many areas, the efforts failed completely.
The success of the Pine Ridge Merriam’s flock prompted biologists to transplant some of those birds for release in other portions of the state, where they continued to expand their range and hybridize. In the southeastern portion of the state, the remaining Rio Grande birds from the 1961-62 release colonized suitable habitat, and the release of Eastern wild turkeys in the extreme southeastern corner of the state further tangled the branches of Nebraska’s wild-turkey family tree.
IDENTIFYING NEBRASKA’S BIRDS
Many turkey hunters don’t care which subspecies they’re after, so long as they gobble and strut. But two groups in particular have a vested interest in the DNA of Cornhusker turkeys. One is hunters seeking a Grand Slam, recognized by the National Wild Turkey Federation. A Grand Slam requires one of each of the four major U.S. subspecies of wild turkey (Osceola, Rio Grande, Eastern, and Merriam’s).