Turkey Talk

Research for this article was far ranging.  The parks, monuments, and other archeological sites discussed sit on the ancestral homelands of the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ohkay Owingeh, the Pueblos of Kewa, Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Sandia, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Taos, Tesuque, Ysleta Del Sur of Texas, and Zia, as well as the Fort Sill, Jicarilla, Mescalero, San Carlos, White Mountain, and Yavapai-Apache Nations.

When I was a park ranger at Chiricahua National Monument, now more years ago than I’d like to admit, I was lucky at seeing wildlife.  I saw coatimundis on my first or second day in the park – usually only visitors get to see them that quickly!  I also had a baby spotted skunk come up to my housing’s sliding glass door.  When I called my housemate over and we crouched down to see better, the baby got worried and sprayed the house.  Lucky, indeed.

The funniest wild animal encounter I had, though, was with a flock of turkeys.  I was leaving the park for the long Thanksgiving weekend and ahead of me the birds stood in the roadway.  I expected them to move quickly away from my approaching car, but instead they waddled in front for a long while.  Letting me ponder the story from Juan Nentvig, a Jesuit who wrote between 1750 and 1767, about the name Chiricahua coming from an Opata word that means wild turkey, or range of wild turkeys.  As well as letting me reflect on the fact that I hadn’t yet seen many wild turkeys in the time leading up to the European-American tradition of gorging on turkey.  Did the turkeys know that hunting on the NPS site is banned??

Turkey flute
Turkey Whistle (Courtesy of NPS)

The turkeys that I saw at Chiricahua that day were likely Gould’s Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana).  I am not a birder, and more recently was shocked to find out that there are only two species of wild turkey in North America, but that the North American Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has five subspecies.  More than that, there were 6 subspecies, but the South Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo) has gone extinct.  The ones in the Chiricahuas are likely Gould’s because the birds were also, almost, hunted out of the Chiricahua mountains.  It was just in the 1990s that the Arizona Game and Fish Department and US Forest Service worked with partners including the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, to relocate wild Gould turkeys from Mexico and release them into mountain ranges in southern Arizona called, Sky Islands, including the Chiricahuas.

Turkey blanket
Turkey Blanket (Courtesy of NPS)

Turkeys were plentiful throughout North America, until over hunting brought multiple subspecies down.  And at least thirteen of our four corners NPS park units have turkey artifacts.  As an archeologist, this intrigues me: what was going on with them before the settler colonial hunting?  A recent (in archeological terms) flood of articles and research helped me gain a better understanding.  First, please check out Mary Weahkee’s YouTube video (2020) about making a turkey feather blanket.  Anyone who has been shocked at the price of a feather comforter will gain a new appreciation of the skill and time that goes into making cordage embedded with turkey feathers, and then weaving it together to make a fluffy, warm blanket or cloak for those Sky Island and Colorado Plateau winters. Clearly different from today’s packed-feather blankets, and even more impressive.

Turkey rope
Bindings with Turkey added (Courtesy of NPS)

There are ancient villages where archeologists documented turkey pens, and other evidence of the rearing of these birds.  Egg shells are found at some NPS units, for instance.  Archeologists assumed from this evidence that ancestors were eating the birds.  After all, they figure prominently in feasting for those of Western European decent.  Historic documents report that Coronado, the Spanish explorer and conqueror, encountered turkeys at the Pueblo of Zuni where “The Indians tell me that they do not eat these in any of the seven villages, but keep them merely for the sake of procuring feathers. I do not believe this, because they are very good and better than those of Mexico” (Ramusio, 1606; translated by Schorger 1966). Coronado did not take people at their word, but I do.  Turkey bones are not usually found in trash mounds, and when we listen to descendant communities today, we are again told that turkeys were not usually on the menu.  In fact, they were treated as sacred, and it is again their feathers that tell the story best.

New Mexico Zuni archeologist and anthropologist, Edmond Ladd, worked for the NPS for decades.  Ladd’s master’s thesis focused on ethno-ornithology, and later work included a chapter on this topic in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature (1998).  Ladd shares that the turkey is a revered bird, with its feathers being used alongside eagle feathers on prayer sticks.

Turkey at Chiricahua National Monument
Wild Turkey captured on a trail cam (Courtesy of NPS)

Recent research by archeologists uses advanced technology to look at the nuances of turkey husbandry pre-Contact. For instance, Conrad and colleagues (2016) used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to identify when eggshells were broken, to try to identify intentionality in breakage versus hatching.  Many others have been spurred on by the research Camilla Speller (2009, 2010) has done on domesticated turkey DNA.  While the commercially available turkey today is descended from the now-extinct South Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo), the turkeys found in archeological contexts are a separate line, descended primarily from the Eastern (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) with some genetic input from the Rio Grande turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia).  Little evidence of the wild Merriam’s Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is found, indicating that the Ancestral Puebloans did mix a few local birds into their flocks, but for the most part, traded a distinct, single lineage for all purposes, including feathers.

As for any Thanksgiving dinners this month, I think back to that Coronado quote – while he apparently unceremoniously ate the revered turkeys of Zuni Pueblo, he described them more favorably than the South Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo).  And the South Mexican subspecies is the one that commercial turkeys are descended from today.  I’ve never been a big fan of turkey, and maybe this is the reason…  Either way, this November, I recognize the enduring presence of Indigenous people on these lands, and I give them thanks to be able to learn about, work on, and share regarding their traditional lands and ways.

Suggestions for further reading: Mary Weahkee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L4qRn3RIDc ; JAS Special issue – Turkey husbandry and domestication: Recent scientific advances, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.07.016 ; Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature (1998)

Sharlot Hart, Archeologist, NPS Southern Arizona Office

Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds.
Water reflects blue skies and clouds next to white rocks and green grasses. Yellow-orange leaves of trees rise behind it under rocky peaks and blue skies with white clouds (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you were to tell someone that you were going to visit the Chihuahuan Desert for its spectacular fall foliage, you would likely be greeted with puzzled looks and maybe skepticism. Surrounded by a region characterized by its aridity and sparse vegetation, Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s diverse habitats and their seasonal changes are a huge draw for those who know that stereotypes and assumptions about unexplored places are often wrong. Spending some time on the trails away from roadways and modern distractions opens a world of color waiting to be discovered.

A hiker wearing a blue backpack walks on a trail that winds through trees with yellow, orange, and green leaves. Sunlight streams through the branches and shadows of tree trunks and branches stretch across the ground.
The meandering path in McKittrick Canyon has minimal elevation change and each curve beckons further exploration (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

The lowest elevations of the park receive less than ten inches of precipitation annually, but the middle and upper elevations receive 15-20+ inches and that makes all the difference on what grows at these altitudes. It is possible to hike in one day from an area with vegetation typical of Mexico to one that is more typical of the Rockies several hundred miles to the north. A land of cacti, creosote bushes, agaves, and yuccas gives way to broad-leaved trees like madrones, ash, oaks, and maples. Even a few aspen grow mixed with Douglas-fir and ponderosa pines in isolated areas of the high country.

Pine trees stretch to blue sky above with white clouds. A white and dark gray peak is between the branches and a large boulder among trees with yellow and orange leaves is below.
The scenery found in McKittrick Canyon varies from Chihuahuan Desert to riparian woodland. Fall weather is typically mild (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

That transition from desert to woodland is starkest in McKittrick Canyon, which shelters a shallow stream of crystal-clear water that flows year-round and even during the worst of droughts. To see the best color, plan on hiking seven miles roundtrip to the Grotto and back in late October to mid-November. If that distance is too much, a five-mile hike to Pratt Cabin and back will still allow you to see the stream and some color. Maples will turn yellow, orange or red. Mild sunny days, with cool but not freezing temperatures, bring in the reddest leaves. Little walnut will turn yellow, sumacs red. Chinkapin oaks usually turn brown, but may be gold-tinged in some years. All these varied hues and leaf shapes highlight the biodiversity of the area and are a source of continual surprise for travelers who have spent hours, or days in some cases, traversing arid terrain.

Red, green, and yellow trees seen from a distance cover slopes below rocky cliffs.
The views from the high country allow hikers to look down canyons filled with fall foliage (courtesy of NPS/D. Bieri).

Maples occur in other canyons as well. For those who are looking for a more adventurous and strenuous hike, the Devil’s Hall Trail & Route in Pine Springs Canyon offers the opportunity to scramble around boulders scattered in a wash that ranges from five to fifty yards wide. The twists and turns below the slopes of the canyon create new scenes throughout the 4.2-mile roundtrip hike. An erosional feature at the end of the hike, the Devil’s Hall, has walls that are sheer and about fifteen feet apart.

White and dark branches spread upward. Green leaves of low-growing plants are below. Red and orange leaves of different trees are in the back.
The peeling bark of madrone trees contrasts beautifully with colorful leaves of deciduous trees like maples, ash, and walnuts (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

Those who do not mind making a longer drive to Dog Canyon gain options to hike shorter distances to see fall colors. The Tejas Trail is fairly level for the first mile and winds along and across a drainage that has many maples. The trail continues into the higher elevations and becomes strenuous, with incredible views into Dog Canyon and McKittrick Canyon. To gain these views expect strenuous hiking and a roundtrip distance of at least nine miles. The colors in Dog Canyon and along the Devil’s Hall Trail tend to turn before McKittrick Canyon.

White rocks in shadow and sunlight stretch through trees with orange leaves on the left and red and green on the right. A small sun with spreading rays is in the upper left.
After one mile of trail, the Devil’s Hall route turns into a rocky wash with areas of large boulders and erosional features like the Hiker’s Staircase and a narrow section called the Devil’s Hall (courtesy of NPS/Laurence Parent).

If you arrive later in the season or are looking for a shorter hike, the Smith Spring Trail (2.5 miles roundtrip) tends to change after the colors have peaked in McKittrick Canyon. The number of maples around the spring is more modest than what can be found in other canyons, but the meandering cascade through the boulders and travertine creates a delightful scene and makes it a place worth visiting.

Autumn’s flourish of color is something to be savored before the harsh, cold winds of winter make hikes more challenging and the landscape seem dormant. The scale of the color change is not as grand as that occurring in the East, but the mix of fall foliage under the cliffs of a fossil reef, and the sight of colorful leaves tumbling beside cacti and agaves, are defining characteristics of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and some of the things that make people wish they had allowed more time to explore. If you do allow more time, you will not be disappointed and you will join the many who have discovered that the desert is not always what you expect. Plan your visit today!

By: Michael Haynie, Park Ranger, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Visitors enjoying Harvest Festival circa 2017 (NPS)

Whiskeytown, CA – Whiskeytown National Recreation Area invites the public to the first Harvest Festival in five years! This year’s festival will be held from 10am to 2pm on Saturday, September 17. This family friendly event will include heirloom apple tastings courtesy of Humboldt Cider Company, an apple baking contest, cider press demonstrations, walking tours of the restored orchard, walking tours around Camden House, corn husk doll making, gold panning, croquet, and more.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area thanks Shasta State Historic Park, Western National Parks Association, Shasta Historical Society, Shasta County Office of Education, Humboldt Cider Company, Whiskeytown Marinas, LLC, and Friends of Whiskeytown for partnering with us on this special event.

Bring yourself, your family, and your friends and enjoy Whiskeytown National Recreation Area’s fall heritage!