Matt Pool describes himself as a “dead-eye” with a shotgun. On a recent hunt his talents and enthusiasm were evident in the field, dropping a jake in its tracks. But it wasn’t until …
Matt Pool describes himself as a “dead-eye” with a shotgun. On a recent hunt his talents and enthusiasm were evident in the field, dropping a jake in its tracks. But it wasn’t until he retrieved his wild Merriam’s turkey that he noticed something odd.
The gobbler was jet black, only revealing different shades when viewed in the right light. Pool and hunting partners Ron Adams and Gil Vining didn’t know what to make of the unusual color. So they took it to Nature’s Design, in Cody.
“I’d never seen one like it,” said owner Ray Hatfield, who’s been a taxidermist for area hunters for 50 years.
He had seen a few “very rare,” oddly colored turkeys and figured this must be what is commonly called a color morph. After some checking, he found the turkey was born with one of the rarest color variations, known as melanism.
According to Mark Hatfield (no relation) of the National Wild Turkey Federation, melanism is the rarest genetic pigment mutation seen in the species. The condition causes a wild turkey to produce mostly or only black feathers, including the wings; it’s basically the opposite of albinism, which creates all-white birds. Mark Hatfield, a wildlife biologist and national director of conservation for the federation, said melanism is present in one in 50,000-200,000 wild turkeys.
“I think I saw pictures of five this year, so far, and three last year,” he said. “If you think about the fact that we harvest about 750,000 [wild turkeys] a year on average, and there’s three to five showing up, that kind of gives you a snapshot of the rarity of this bird.”
Other rare morphs in the species include erythristic (red- to reddish orange-colored turkeys), leucitic (the loss of most pigment) or albinism, and smoky-gray birds, which is relatively more common. Melanism is better for the species — in terms of their ability to survive — than albinism.
“Melanistic birds don’t stick out like a sore thumb [to predators],” Mark Hatfield said, comparing the trait to that of all-white turkeys.
Color morphs are caused by recessive genes that occur in pockets around the country. Ray Hatfield said he’s seen the smoky and red variations in the area, but Pool’s trophy was the first melanistic turkey he has ever laid his eyes on.
Pool, who has Down syndrome, has taken several turkeys, deer, antelope and even a cow elk while hunting with his father, David, and with the Polestar Outdoors organization. After nine years hunting with Polestar, Pool has graduated to being just one of the guys, said Vining, who comes to Wyoming each year to assist in hunts for the Christian organization.
And it was on a whim that Vining, Adams and Pool decided there was time for a hunt.
While Pool made quick work of the jake, getting the bird to come within range was a struggle. A hen walked straight to the hunting party with the rare turkey on her tail. But he must have sensed trouble and stayed well outside the range of Pool’s shotgun. The hen began calling, so Gil mimicked her.
“I love to call turkeys,” he said. “That’s my thing.”
About 45 minutes later the jake reappeared, hiding behind some trees. Pool was lying prone on the ground, but when Vining saw the bird step behind a large tree and out of sight, he signaled Pool to get ready. The jake took one last peek from behind the tree — his fatal mistake.
“Matt didn’t waffle. He dropped him right in his tracks,” Vining said. “It was amazing.”
Then they got a good look at the unusual turkey.
“I know I called it a gobbler, but there is something with this bird,” Vining recalled.
Ray Hatfield is doing a full-body mount of the rare turkey and the Pool family is planning to make the meat into a special dinner. Pool, who is rarely found around town not wearing his camo, has developed such a love for hunting and wild game he purchased his own freezer. “Now I need a bigger one,” he said.
Next on Pool’s list of conquests is a bull elk and a caribou — “like Rudolph,” he said with a giggle. The cow elk Pool previously harvested has provided the family with many wonderful meals, his father said. But like most young hunters, Pool wants a trophy.
“I like the antlers,” he said.
Mark Hatfield has noticed an increase in the number of reported melanistic turkeys in recent years — mostly due to increased communication thanks to the internet, he theorized. He also said there may be another melanistic turkey showing up in the region.
“If you see a bird like this in a flock in your area,” he said, “the chances of it reoccurring is a lot greater than if you don’t have the recessive gene in the area.”