Do wild turkeys hybridize?

Rio Grande turkeys in Monterey (photo by Carrie Wilson)

Question: While hunting turkey on a private ranch, my hunting partner killed a large tom turkey that had white feathers on his rump and tail and was very black in color. This leads me to believe it is a Merriam’s. We hunt above Lake Sonoma in Sonoma County and don’t believe this is their normal range. We see a lot of Rios on the property but have never seen Merriam’s. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) lists Merriam’s in numerous counties in California. If the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) planted them at Lake Sonoma, will they interbreed with the Rios and form a crossbreed? Thanks. (Mike B., Brentwood)

Answer: There are two species of wild turkeys in the world, only one of which (Meleagris gallopavo) lives in the United States. This species is broken into five subspecies – Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s.

In an attempt to determine which subspecies was better suited for California’s habitats, DFG released three of the five subspecies (Rios, Merriam’s and Easterns) and an Eastern/Rio hybrid into different areas of the state. Based on the 2004 Wild Turkey Strategic Plan, and according to DFG Wild Turkey Biologist Scott Gardner, there has never been a release of Merriam’s in Sonoma County. Only Rios have been released in Sonoma County. The closest Merriam’s release was northern Mendocino County.

According to NWTF biologist Ryan Mathis, people frequently ask if their turkeys are wild/domestic hybrids. He says it’s possible, but unlikely. Natural color abnormalities often occur among birds and so people will confuse these characteristics with those of a wild/domestic hybrid. Color abnormalities that occur in wild turkeys include black (melanistic), red (erythritic), white (albinotic) and the most commonly reported, “smoke gray phase,” which is an incomplete albino. Mathis has seen the smoke gray and the erythritic phases in Sonoma County, but after viewing the photo you sent, he says the bird in question is neither of these. He says you have a Rio Grande.

Plumage coloration of a single subspecies varies wildly among wild turkeys from different areas within their range. The retrix tips (the band of color on the tail feathers) of Rio Grandes range from cinnamon to buff, and the tips of Merriam’s range from buff to pinkish-white. Body feathers on Rio Grandes range from copper to greenish gold, and Merriam’s are a purplish-bronze. Turkeys with a copper appearance are a dead giveaway, so what you’ve got is a Rio.

For more information and facts on wild turkeys, please visit or

Double dipping between Mexico and California
If an angler has both U.S. and Mexican fishing licenses and fishes the Coronado Islands (Mexico waters) in the morning and catches a “Mexican limit” of fish, can the person stop on the way back to San Diego Bay to fish the Point Loma kelp beds to catch a U.S. limit of fish? It seems like this should be okay as long as each angler keeps each catch limit separate. For example, each angler could have one ice cooler for their Mexican fish and a separate ice cooler for their U.S. fish. Please advise. (Michael V., San Diego)

Answer: Unfortunately, no. California ocean fishing regulations prohibit any person from having more fish in their possession than is prescribed, even if they were taken from different sides of the border. Once you cross the border, you must complete a Declaration for Entry form listing all fish taken in Mexico, and offload your catch without fishing along the way. The form is available on page 79 of the 2010 Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations book or online at If you do stop to fish on the U.S. side, all fish in your possession must then meet California regulations, which are often even more restrictive than those prescribed under the laws of Mexico.

Grunion hunting
: I want to take my son on a grunion run while vacationing in California. I have an out-of-state driver’s license and don’t want to purchase a California fishing license. I don’t plan on catching any myself but want him to enjoy the experience. He is 13. Will I get in any trouble? (Sean D.)

Answer: As long as you are not participating in the hunts and are in no way pursuing the fish or assisting your son in pursuing or capturing any fish, then you do not need a license. Remember that California grunion season is closed during April and May each year (California Code of Regulations Title 14, section 28.00).

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Carrie Wilson is a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. While she cannot personally answer everyone’s questions, she will select a few to answer each week. Please contact her at

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