Scouting for Rios
By Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Program Coordinator
We departed Lesson Six with a better appreciation of the scouting efforts needed to locate Merriam’s in the foothills and west of the Continental Divide. In this lesson, we will spend some time discussing some of the scouting techniques associated with hunting Rio Grande turkeys in Colorado.
You will recall from the distribution map in Lesson Six, that the Rio Grande turkey was introduced in Colorado in the early 1980s and has been a very successful transplant effort for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and our partners in the National Wild Turkey Foundation (NWTF). Most of the transplant effort has been in the riparian zones of Colorado. A bit of a discussion of “what is a riparian life zone” is probably in order at this point. The term “riparian” is derived from the Latin word ripa which means river bank. If you take a look at the distribution map again, you will note that most of the range for Rio Grande turkey falls along the main river corridors of Eastern Colorado, mainly the Platte, Arikaree and the Arkansas. These river corridors all have several aspects of habitat in common and they all serve to provide the turkeys with three main elements of survival: food, shelter and water. As a turkey hunter, you must understand how the birds use the river corridors to support life and then how to find the birds using that knowledge. Let’s discuss each of the three elements separately and then try to tie them all together to better understand the scouting game.
The river and stream corridors provide a good source of food for turkeys. Typically in Colorado, these corridors provide the potential for irrigation to grain and grass crops for the ranchers and farmers of Colorado. The areas adjacent to the rivers hold more diverse vegetation in the form of forbs and seeds than areas outside the riparian corridors. If you look at an aerial map of the river corridors, you will note most of them are less than one-half mile wide in most places and contain stands of cottonwood, willows, wild plums and wild sunflower. Rios are opportunistic feeders and will eat what is available but this river corridor can provide a wide variety of foods for them. In the spring, when the hens are looking to breed and brood young, the corridors provide sources of seeds, new plant sprouts and of most importance to the young chicks – insects. As the fall approaches and grains in the fields are harvested, corn, wheat and pasture insects become a source of high energy foods. Winter snows may force the birds to seek cattle feed lots, silage piles and harvested corn fields near the river corridors that allow them to return to the safety of the trees and understory to roost and loaf during the day.
I think the term “shelter” means two very different kinds of habitat to a wild turkey. Turkeys fly up into trees in the evening to “roost”. There they spend the night and are safe from predators on the ground. This kind of shelter is not necessarily a roof to keep out the rain, rather a safe place to sleep. The cottonwood trees along the river corridors offer the perfect roost sites for turkeys. The large and open limbs provide easy access for turkeys to fly into and allows the birds to easily reposition in the tree. Cottonwood branches also give the birds a relatively clear vantage point to watch the ground for potential danger in the morning before they fly down.
The second kind of shelter used include taller grasses and shrubs on the ground in which the turkey can hide and evade a predator. Hens look to find nesting cover of about 12 to 18 inch high grass/thickets to build a nest. This cover provides some seclusion from airborne predators (hawks and owls) and some ground cover from four legged predators. Once the poults hatch, they need to be able to immediately “disappear” into the cover to evade predators.
All animals need water to survive and turkeys are no different. I think the Rios of the western states use water sources for a variety of purposes other than just drinking. The river corridors and dry creek lines of the eastern plains provide a source of large stands of cottonwood trees for roosting and are a natural corridor for green vegetation and insects. Turkeys will go to water at least once a day if it is present and accessible to them, but they can make do with morning moisture from dew or plants during times when no creeks are running. In eastern Colorado, the major rivers are seldom dry and thus provide a full time source of accessible water for the birds. I also think the Rios use the river corridors as major highways to get from point to point. When the water levels are low, the birds will use the sandy banks of the river to get around and at times, even strut zones. I think this is because from the riverbanks they can see and be seen for long distances and yet remain only a few steps away from cover to hide, or they will simply fly across the river to put a barrier between themselves and danger. Having hunted Eastern birds earlier in my career, I found Easterns would hang up at the smallest of creeks but seems that Rios are not bothered at all by a river. Wading or flying across them is just a matter of normal travel.
Putting it together
Now that we have discussed the three elements of turkey survival, how do we use that understanding as a tool for scouting? Basically, this gives us a place to start. If you look at the Colorado maps and focus on those major river corridors I mentioned above, you will find most have a highway or county road that runs along the river or stream. In the early spring, time to take a drive or ten and look for birds in the fields along those highways. If you find birds in limited license units, but did not draw, make the spot on the map for future reference. If you see birds in an unlimited unit, use a plat book or other source to identify the landowner; or just use the old proven method of knocking on doors and asking permission to hunt in the coming season.
If your drive does not produce birds, take time to park the car/truck and start walking along those river bottoms to look for tracks, strut marks and scat. Take a good look at any cottonwoods with large limbs that may hang over the bank and make sure the water line is away from the bank leaving a 20 or 30 yard sandy beach between the bank and the river. Look for piles of scat in these areas as they may reveal a well used roost site. While walking, look for feathers, scratching in the leaves and of course, turkeys running in the opposite direction. I use a sketch map and take notes of all the “turkey information” I find so I can potentially develop a good picture of what is happening on the ground. Carry a good 1:100,000 or larger scale map with you and see if plotting your turkey information does not help you develop a good picture of travel corridors, feeding areas and display areas.
Scouting takes time and hard work to find those special areas where food, shelter and water all come together to make the prefect habitat where the birds want to be. The good news is Rios do not cover nearly as much ground each day as mountain Merriam’s. Once you can find a good location that holds birds, you will tend to see them within a mile or so of that location unless they are pressured out by humans during hunting season.
Good luck! The season has started, but there is still a lot of time to play with Old Tom!