During a recent Facebook conversation among hunters, someone challenged the wild turkey’s claim to the title of king of North American game birds. The possibility there was any question had never occurred to me. But on reflection, it is a subjective judgement – or is it?

Wild turkeys in Cape Elizabeth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I decided the best way to find out is to look at the entire kingdom of North American game birds to see who really rules the roost.

While it’s relegated to something like serf status here in Maine, the ring-necked pheasant has a mighty big following in other areas, particularly the Midwest and western states like South Dakota. The birds even have their own conservation organization: Pheasants Forever. However, we can very quickly cross it off our list simply because the species is not native to North America. Ditto for the Hungarian partridge. Tick and tick.

One game bird species we seldom even consider in Maine, or just about anywhere else in New England for that matter, is the mourning dove. Yet it is legal game in 40 states and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 840,000 hunters spend approximately 2.4 million days afield each year to harvest 13.8 million mourning doves. Meanwhile, wild turkeys attracted 2.0 million hunters for 13 million days. No comparison there. Tick.

What about other species? It turns out, game birds aren’t even the most popular type of small game. The top two slots are held by squirrels and rabbits, respectively. Quail comes in at No. 3, followed by those foreign pheasants. When combined with prairie chickens, grouse holds the fourth spot, attracting a meager 438,000 for 4 million days of hunting. No comparison there.

Regional preferences exist, which suggests distribution as another criteria by which to judge royal status. Doves are migratory and can go wherever they choose so they obviously take top spot here. Ptarmigans barely reside in the United States so they lie at the bottom of the list. In between, prairie chickens and sage grouse have very limited distributions, as do quail, though the bobwhite occupies most of the eastern United States – in limited numbers over much of that range. The ruffed grouse has a coast-to-coast distribution, occupying most Canadian provinces, most northern tier American states and ranging down the Appalachians. Meanwhile, wild turkeys are legal game in 49 states and five provinces. Nuff said there.

Many hunters rank the game they pursue based on the challenge of pursuing them. The most popular method of grouse hunting in Maine is to rise at the crack of mid-morning, pile into the pickup and leisurely ride the dirt logging roads until an unsuspecting partridge is spied picking gravel on the roadside. The hunter then dismounts, loads up and stalks casually to within shotgun range.

Hunting wild turkey is a far different endeavor. After days, even weeks of scouting, the hunter rises well before daylight has even considered coming, slips silently into the woodlot and awaits an opportunity to begin a calling match that could last hours, and more often than not ends in failure. The wild turkey’s wariness is legendary and its eyesight rivaled by few species in the animal kingdom. The only way to beat the turkey is to sit motionless and coax it into range. And it is said if turkeys could smell, you never would kill them. The challenge is nearly unrivaled. Then again, I imagine trying to call in a ruffed grouse could be pretty tricky.

Really, the only possible argument I see for refuting the wild turkey’s claim to the throne is it’s elevated out of the pedestrian pack of species collectively referred to as “upland game” and granted “big-game” status in many states. But I guess that’s another vote in the turkey’s favor. Objectively, there really is no question. Subjectively, it’s whatever species you enjoy pursuing the most that reigns supreme.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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