Native Turkeys Of The North Georgia Mountains

The wild turkeys that survived in the north Georgia mountains when populations were wiped out in other areas looked and acted different.

Herb McClure | March 1, 2023

Taken in 1976, this Blue Ridge gobbler was killed in the same patch of woods where the author Herb McClure killed this very first gobbler in 1959! It is just one of his many treasured memories of Blue Ridge WMA and its special turkeys. Also of note and historical significance is that Herb’s gobbler is laying on what’s left of a mountain chestnut log. After blight killed all the chestnut trees by the 1950s, no more chestnut logs remain on the forest floor. They have all weathered away.

Ten years ago I wrote a book titled Native Turkeys. Since then, I have been asked many times, “Were those original mountain turkeys you wrote about a different wild turkey than the ones either pen-raised or live-trapped and restocked in many parts of Georgia?”

To answer that question, I will only express what I have experienced and seen. The answer from my experiences is “Yes!” They were a different wild turkey in their coloring and even more so in their behavior.

The wild turkeys I wrote about in the beginning of my book were the same wild turkeys living within the vast area that became the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area in 1936. A forest ranger named Arthur Woody was responsible for saving these particular wild turkeys from being overhunted and possibly being completely wiped out. In many places throughout Georgia, both before and after Woody’s time, wild turkeys met their demise through overhunting, urban sprawl and the steady conversion of forest land into farmland.

Woody’s main purpose for wanting to make the Blue Ridge WMA into a wildlife preserve was to protect the deer he had stocked in the area starting in 1927. As mentioned, the turkeys were already there, and he protected them, as well.

To begin his preservation project, Woody first closed all public roads through a 20-square-mile section of the Chattahoochee National Forest. At that time the Blue Ridge WMA consisted of about 38,000 acres. Much of this land was a vast wilderness sitting in the middle of many more thousands of acres of national forestland. Because of the size of the Blue Ridge WMA and the many thousands of acres surrounding it, the wild turkeys found there today and their descendants have remained mostly pure-blooded Eastern wild turkeys.

Biologist Kent Kammermeyer was a senior biologist with the Georgia DNR and an expert on mountain wildlife. Regarding the Blue Ridge turkeys, Kent said, “Their survival was entrenched in their genes, and they could possibly be the purest strain of Eastern wild turkeys left in the country.”

(Note: Kent Kammermeyer passed away on Jan. 13, 2023 after a bout with cancer. Kent was a much loved and respected recently retired biologist with the Georgia DNR whose stories and photos frequently appeared in GON. He will be greatly missed.)

In 1955, state wildlife professionals with Georgia Game & Fish chose this same area to open the state’s very first spring gobbler hunt. This was because the Blue Ridge WMA still had a sustainable wild turkey population. I was fortunate to have been introduced to turkey hunting there in 1956. I killed my first Blue Ridge gobbler in 1958, and I have killed many others there over the years.

The author’s first Blue Ridge WMA gobbler (above) was taken in 1959. It had tail feathers that were very dark brown, almost black. The tails of many of the restocked turkeys in the north Georgia mountains today are mostly a reddish brown, even a light tan, with blondish feather tops. One of Herb McClure’s last gobblers taken from Blue Ridge WMA was killed in 2013 (below). The tail feathers still show that dark brown coloration although the feather tips are distinctly blond.

Beyond their visual differences that I noticed when I later started comparing the photos of Blue Ridge WMA turkeys with gobblers taken in other areas, it was the wild nature of these birds that I experienced that really set them apart. There was no comparison between a Blue Ridge WMA gobbler and one that had been pen-raised and restocked into some nearby areas.

It was my understanding that some of the turkeys originally stocked in the Chattahoochee WMA and other areas close to Blue Ridge had been pen raised in Albany. I remember seeing some of these turkeys in large enclosed pens where they were kept for a time when they were first brought to the mountains. They seemed almost tame. Compared to the wild birds of Blue Ridge that I was used to hunting, they seemed like a different species. I don’t think any of them survived in the wild.

During my many years of turkey hunting, I have taken gobblers from 15 different Georgia counties. In some counties my cohorts and I have taken numerous gobblers, most of which had been restocked at some point. In our experience, none of these turkeys were as wild and challenging to hunt as the native gobblers of Blue Ridge WMA. (Note: In many parts of the state the turkeys that were restocked were live-trapped in other areas.)            

It seemed obvious to me that whenever I saw a restocked turkey feeding out in a field near houses or standing out in a pasture, they never appeared to have as much fear of man as the Blue Ridge WMA gobblers. Also, when spooked from different types of hunting situations, the stocked birds seemed to be much slower in showing fear before running away. Comparing the wildness of the two distinct types of turkeys, it was my experience that native turkeys would not tolerate man’s civilization at all. This was true back 40 or 50 years ago, and it is still true to some extent today. Today, it’s likely that cross-breeding with stocked turkeys coming in from other areas and other enticements on private land like game feeders have changed the native turkey’s habits to some degree.

Years ago when I first started hunting in Blue Ridge WMA, every gobbler I encountered would flush like a grouse and sail away whenever it came in contact with me or any other hunter. They still do this today in many situations. I believe their wildness is entrenched in their genes. The habitat in Georgia’s largest and most remote mountains has stayed mostly natural and undeveloped, adding to the wildness of these mountain birds. Whereas during the early part of the 20th century, much of the habitat in central and south Georgia changed from farmland back to pine forests, creating ideal habitat for the restocking of turkeys in many areas.

Herb McClure holds his classic book “Native Turkeys And A Georgia Mountain Turkey Hunter,” which was published in 2012. The book is still available at Amazon.

I should mention that the turkeys found in some of Georgia’s dense river swamps in central and south Georgia and certain places along the Savannah River have retained much of their wildness. Their characteristics and coloring are much like other native turkeys that can also be found in north Florida.

In closing, I’d like to say I believe this story is worth telling. I believe the core area of Blue Ridge WMA contains some of the purest and wildest turkeys in the mountain region. They seem to have much darker (almost black) feathers, and generally they are slightly smaller in size, often under 20 pounds, than adult turkeys from other areas. Of course, in the harsh surroundings of the Blue Ridge WMA, a spring gobbler’s weight can often depend on how good the acorn crop was several months earlier. I’ve seen years in the mountains when there were no acorns, and that certainly affects a gobbler’s condition in the spring.  In recent years wild hogs have become a serious problem because they eat every acorn they can find. We all need to work on that problem.

My life and my entire turkey hunting career have been greatly enhanced by hunting those tough old mountain gobblers. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

Looking back, I could have easily hunted in more accessible places than at the Blue Ridge WMA. But it was the challenge of hunting those wild gobblers that lived in such wild places that caught my passion for hunting them.

A Blue Ridge gobbler always made me feel like they were worthy of the term “wild gobbler,” and I thank the late Arthur Woody for the life I have enjoyed hunting there for 50 years.

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