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What Subspecies Did You Just Harvest?

THROWBACK TT Aug 3rd, 2021 | This Turkey Tuesday is about a question I get regularly during turkey season – what subspecies did I harvest? Subspecies designations were historically based on variation in plumage, often centered around differences in rump feathers and color on the tips of tail feathers. The Nebraska tom in the first picture exhibited plumage characters similar to a Merriam’s, but he lacked the pink hues in the rump feathers. Was he a hybrid, or just a Merriam’s that looked different than we expected? The second picture shows 3 birds harvested on the same day, on the same property, in the core of Rio Grande range. Clearly, the 3 birds show variations in plumage – and we hunters encounter similar situations all over the turkey’s range. The question is – at what point does natural variation in plumage within a subspecies end and hybridization among members of different subspecies begin? Well, without confirmation through genetic testing, we simply don’t know. Turkeys have lots of variation in plumage characters within local areas and hybridization among subspecies is natural where range boundaries meet. Moreover, during restoration efforts, birds were regularly moved to areas outside the subspecies ranges – basically we mixed the historical ranges and promoted hybridization. The collective result is, you may harvest toms in many central and western states that have highly variable plumage, whether from hybridization or just natural variation. But, its important to note that where hybridization occurs, we don’t do anything different to manage hybrid turkeys – they’re simply managed as wild turkeys. I’ve chased single season slams, so I understand that goal. But as turkey hunters, should we care if a bird we harvest fails to meet the textbook standards for a particular subspecies?

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