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Wild turkeys thrive in North County’s backcountry

Turkeys are prevalent, but they still can be difficult to find sometimes. This flock was photographed off Pamo Road in Ramona last month.
Turkeys are prevalent, but they still can be difficult to find sometimes. This flock was photographed off Pamo Road in Ramona last month. (John Gastaldo)

When most people think of wild turkeys, they imagine snowy New England landscapes, but San Diego County residents don't have to channel their inner-Robert Frost to see the Thanksgiving icons.

The area is one of the prime spots in the country to view and hunt wild turkey, with a population estimated at 12,000 to 20,000 or more.

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State officials and hunting enthusiasts introduced the birds in the '90s, and since then they have thrived, spreading across most of the rural parts of the county.

For those looking to bag a Thanksgiving dinner centerpiece, hunting season for wild turkey opened Nov. 13 and runs through Nov. 28. Hunting spots in the county include Cleveland National Forest, federal Bureau of Land Management territory and some state Department of Fish and Game lands.

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In addition to having a hunting license, turkey hunters are required to buy an upland bird game stamp.

There is a limit in the fall of one turkey, male of female, per hunting license, but with adults tipping the scales at 20 pounds or more, that's plenty of bird to leave dinner guests in turkey-induced lethargy.

For those simply looking get a glimpse of the fowl, one of the best spots for turkey watching is William Heise County Park, two miles west of Julian.

Hunting is not allowed in county parks, making William Heise a haven for friend and bird alike.

Diane and A.J. Bales, camp hosts who live at the park along with their yellow Labrador, Misty, are "quite familiar with our turkey friends."

"They seem to know they're safe here," Diane Bales said. "Around Thanksgiving, way more show up at the campground."

The Baleses said the turkeys come out mostly in the morning and evening to forage, jumping in the Bales' water fountain and looking for stray bird seed knocked from feeders.

"The females will come right up to you, but the males are more standoffish," A.J. Bales said.

The turkeys are generally friendly, even with Misty, but they do tend to scare off the deer, the Baleses said.

However, the Department of Fish and Game tells homeowners not to feed the birds, as it removes their natural fear of humans and can lead them to take up permanent residence in suburban areas.

About 300 of the birds were introduced to the county in 1993 by state officials and the local chapters of Safari Club International and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Since then, the population has boomed, thanks to a lack of many predators and an abundance of food sources. The birds eat fallen nuts, insects and even citrus fruit occasionally.

According to the Department of Fish and Game, wild turkeys now occupy about 18 percent of the state. In San Diego County, their population stretches from the edge of Riverside County to the U.S./Mexico border in rural areas.

They're not the same turkeys found in poultry farms — a little less plump, in fact. Rather, they're a mix of the subspecies Rio Grande found in the arid parts of Texas and the subspecies Eastern, more common to the Midwest.

Other places to spot wild turkeys include Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, including near the park headquarters along state Route 79; on the eastern shore of Cuyamaca Reservoir; and Palomar Mountain.

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