Outdoors

You can't tell the type of wild turkey simply by color

Question: While hunting turkey on a private ranch, my hunting partner killed a large tom that had white feathers on his rump and tail and was very black in color. I 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 lists Merriam's in several counties in California. If the Department of Fish and Game planted them at Lake Sonoma, will they interbreed with the Rios and form a crossbreed?

— 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, the DFG released three of the five subspecies (Rios, Merriam's and Easterns) and an Eastern/Rio hybrid into different areas. Based on the 2004 Wild Turkey Strategic Plan, and according to DFG wild turkey biologist Scott Gardner, no Merriam's have been released in Sonoma County — only Rios. The closest Merriam's release was northern Mendocino County.

Biologist Ryan Mathis says it's possible, but unlikely, that any turkey killed in the wild is a hybrid. Natural color abnormalities often occur among birds and so people can confuse characteristics. Naturally occurring color abnormalities include black (melanistic), red (erythritic), white (albinotic) and the most common "smoke gray phase," which is an incomplete albino. Mathis has seen the smoke gray and the erythritic phases in Sonoma County, but after seeing the photo you sent, he says your bird is a Rio Grande.

Plumage coloration of a single subspecies can vary wildly based on areas within the range. The band on tail feathers of Rio Grandes can range from cinnamon to buff, while the tips of Merriam's can go from buff to pinkish-white. Body feathers on Rios range from copper to greenish gold; Merriam's are a purplish-bronze. Turkeys with a copper appearance are a dead giveaway, so you've got a Rio.

Q: If an angler has both U.S. and Mexican fishing licenses and fishes the Coronado Islands (Mexican waters) in the morning and catches a "Mexican limit" of fish, can he stop on the way back to San Diego Bay to fish the Point Loma kelp beds to catch his U.S. limit? It seems like this should be OK as long as each catch is kept separate.

— Michael V., San Diego

A: Unfortunately, no. California ocean fishing regulations prohibit any person from possessing more fish than allowed by license, even if 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.

Q: 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 buy a California fishing license. I don't plan to catch any myself but want him to enjoy the experience. He is 13. Will I get in any trouble?

— Sean D.

A: As long as you are not participating and in no way pursue the fish, you do not need a license.

Wilson works for the California Department of Fish and Game. Send questions to CalOutdoors@dfg.ca.gov.

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