Cornhusker gobbler genetics
YOU CAN KILL THREE OF THE FOUR SUBSPECIES OF WILD TURKEYS IN NEBRASKA. BUT DNA STUDIES CAST DOUBT ON THE GENETIC PURITY OF THE STATE’S TURKEY FLOCK ▶ 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).
The other group is a team of scientists from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Using
DNA analysis, these biologists are unraveling the genetic composition of turkeys across the state. This research has the potential to explain which subspecies of turkeys have been most successful, how certain subspecies have adapted to varying habitats across from the Sandhills to the agricultural areas, and whether hybridization of wild birds with domestic turkeys has affected survival rates.
A COMPLEX LINEAGE
Differentiating between turkey subspecies is a complicated matter, even when DNA is analyzed. Essentially, a wild turkey is a wild turkey, and even morphologically identified subspecies like the Rio Grande and Merriam’s birds share so much of their DNA that they are almost genetically identical.
The genetic testing to date is consistent with the historical record that, over time, bird populations have intermingled and muddied the genetics.
Evidence shows that turkeys in the western portion of the state exhibit traits from western turkeys (including both Rio Grandes and Merriam’s), and birds in the