That frozen plastic-wrapped Butterball is no comparison to the wild bird that hunts and pecks across Flathead Valley. “We have a big population of wild turkeys,” says Dwight Bergeron, wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. “The turkey population tends to be going up, and they are expanding their range.”
These wild turkeys – two different varieties in the Flathead–are non-natives to Montana, introduced from Wyoming and Colorado in the 1950s. But not everyone appreciates seeing the turkey’s chestnut feathers and blue-red heads. Bergeron reports that Montana FWP hears from both extremes—those who really like the wild birds and those who think they are pests, digging up flower bulbs.
Turkeys don’t migrate; they hang around the Flathead year round. With over 3,500 feathers, polygamous males strut with full peacock-splayed tails in May and June, gathering harems of five or more females. In ground depressions hidden by brush or grass, the females build grass and leaf nests to lay 6-18 brown-spotted tan eggs. “Skunks and raccoons can be tough on those nests and younger chicks,” says Bergeron. Chicks instinctively follow their mother around for protection and food, learning to ground feed on insects, nuts, seeds, fruit, lizards, roots, and bulbs.
Contrary to domestic turkeys, the wild birds fly up to roost in trees. “They’re pretty remarkable fliers and an adaptive bird,” notes Bergeron. “Roosting in trees makes them less vulnerable to predators.” Surprisingly, they can also run up to 25 mph.
If you still need a bird for the Thanksgiving table, go buy a hunting license and bag one. The season runs until Jan. 1. In the Flathead, you can only capture turkeys with a shotgun less than ten-gauge or a long recurve or compound bow.
America eats more than 525 million pounds of turkey during Thanksgiving. So what’s better for the platter? “Alive, the plumage of the wild turkey is way nicer to look at,” laughs Bergeron, “but the domestic ones are good to look at in the roaster.” Consider this when gathering up your holiday spread, the Butterball carries four times the fat content as the wild tom.
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