“You’ve got to check this out.”
That text from my friend Nolan Haney was accompanied with a screen shot from an East Texas hunting group on Facebook.
It included a photo of a smoke-phase turkey, a rare color morph but one that is encountered by numerous hunters around the nation annually.
Turkeys are native to East Texas, with the Eastern subspecies present and growing thanks to reintroduction efforts by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the National Wild Turkey Federation-Texas.
I thought a smoke-phase bird in East Texas would be pretty cool to write about.
Then I read the post.
The photo was taken in Orange County where I live, an area supposedly devoid of turkey for the last 40 years.
I have been researching turkeys in Orange County for the last couple of years when I got a reliable report passed on to me from my good friend and wildlife photographer Gerald Burliegh.
But this was concrete evidence and it was a color-phase jake (inmature gobbler) at that.
James Broderick who captured the photos of this bird on his trail camera was kind enough to share them with us and the information on where the pictures were taken.
They were 3-4 miles from the other solid Orange County report and in a zone that has marginal to good turkey habitat.
Broderick was interested in knowing if this was a wild bird or a domestic strain of turkey.
It’s a good question because there are domestic birds with similar patterns.
My answer to this is “No, this is a wild bird.”
The royal palm is the most common domestic turkey with a lighter color phase that also has dark mixed in. The above photo is taken from a farm down the road from my house in Orange County. The bird in question is NOT a royal palm.
The Narrgansett can have a lot of gray and white mixed in or can be more Eastern turkey-like as this gobbler I photographed at another farm a few years ago. In my opinion the bird in question is not a domestic bird. I also saw a video taken of the bird and it acted like a wild bird.
This area is infested with coyotes and bobcats and in my opinion any domestic bird ranging in those woods would be dead in a few days. This bird has been photographed over the period of a few weeks.
Reader Corey Anderson sent in this photo of a smoke phase Eastern turkey he bagged in Minnessotta. You can see it has a very similar pattern to the smoke-phase bird in Orange County. Nearly all smoke-phase birds I have seen have the standard tail color.
My Turkey Revolution project that began in 2019 has the goal of using photojournalism to raise awareness to wild turkeys and habitat issues. In year two my goal was to photograph an Eastern turkey in the Pineywoods of East Texas.
After much work, the result was photographing this big gobbler that was still on roost at 8:30 a.m.
I had assumed most of Newton County’s birds were the result of restocking out of state birds but after speaking with Texas Parks & Wildlife Department turkey program leader Jason Hardin, I discovered that was not the case.
The bird I photographed did not have a leg band so it was at least a second-generation wild bird or so I thought.
“You will not likely see any banded wild turkeys in Newton County. The area has not received a stocking in 20 years. My records show four release sites scattered north to south across Newton County,” Hardin said.
“Restocking efforts began slowly in the late 1970s and concluded in 2000. There may have been some earlier restocking efforts, but those would have consisted of Rio Grande wild turkeys and pen-reared turkeys (illegal to release today in Texas for the purpose of establishing a wild turkey population).”
There were no stockings on record in Orange County.
“Newton County birds are part of a larger population that expands west out of Louisiana. Once you get to Sabine County, Toledo Bend reservoir serves as a fragmenting feature on the landscape,” Hardin said.
“Turkey numbers begin to decline rapidly as you move north to Shelby County due to the connectivity with the larger metapopulation in Louisiana.”
Hardin said Louisiana wild turkey genetics flow into Newton County.
“They make their way here naturally through regular population expansion. The lake reduces that potential for ingress to those areas north of the Toledo Bend lake dam,” he said.
And that would most likely be the source of a few birds in Orange County.
Above is a map of Louisiana Eastern turkey hunting zones. Hunting for turkeys is allowed in these areas and it pretty much sums up counties with huntable populations. Calcasieu Parish has hunting north of Interstate 10 and that is the Parish that borders Orange County,TX.
Louisiana has areas with birds that have no hunting due to small populations so this shows enough birds to justify hunting and it’s right across the border from not only Orange County but as a crow (or turkey) flies from the smoke-phase bird in the photo its just a couple of miles, perhaps three at the most.
Other Interesting Factors
The bird in the photo has a small beard, showing it is a “jake” or young gobbler. It would be entering its third year of life and past its second spring period so it has put on weight and should have a longer beard by spring 2022.
A study in New York shows jakes move farther than other turkeys more often due to seeking out new territories.
And it makes sense biologically. Young male black bears for example do the same and it helps spread around genetics.
And if you look at this map from biolgoical datbase Springer Link it shows turkey subspecies distribution before the massive habitat changes and stockings that put birds in states like California and Idaho. You can cearly see the Eastern turkey inhabited all of East Texas, including Orange County on the Louisiana border.
According to officials with the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys can move up to three miles per day. They will also hang out in an area and then just disappear for greener pastures so to speak.
Why So Exciting?
For me this is exciting because it shows wild turkeys in my county where in an entire career of wildlife journalism and getting thousands of wildlife sightings reports, have only heard of two reliable turkey sightings.
More importantly it shows us these great birds still have things to teach us.
Just when we think we have it all figured out, a smoke-colored gobbler shows up in Orange County.
And it echoes a recent personal experience.
Sitting in my deer stand on the border of Newton and Orange County (about a half mile from the Orange line) I heard an unmistakable turkey assembly call in early November. This is the sound of a hen gathering her flock.
And I have verified a group of turkeys just a few miles north of there.
Scoffers will go the domestic bird route for the Orange County bird no matter the proof and that’s fine.
The research I have conducted here shows wild turkeys should be in Orange County, TX. And it seems a few more birds are inhabiting southern Newton County than they have in the past.
Now, we just need to figure out how we can make room for more of them in both counties.
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