By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
CDCR employees making their way to work often see deer and other game animals along their route or at their workplace. Enterprise Information Services employees in Rancho Cordova sidestep droppings on their way into the office while employees in other rural areas often find themselves waiting for animals to slowly meander across a road. One of those game animals – the wild turkey – isn’t native to the state. In fact, its introduction to California was part of a coordinated effort. There were many attempts to introduce the bird to the state, dating as far back as 1877, according to the 2004 Strategic Plan for Turkey Wildlife Management published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In the early 1900s, 1920s and 1950s, additional attempts were made. In this installment of Unlocking History, we’re talking turkey.
Bird bounty hunter hired by state
Just two years after the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the state sought to make turkeys available for hunters, but the bird was nowhere to be found in the Golden State.
“In response to requests and suggestions from a number of sportsmen in our State we had for several years made efforts to secure from Virginia, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, states in which wild turkeys are yet found, a sufficient number to them a trial in California, believing they would establish themselves if given reasonable protection,” according to a 1910 Fish and Wildlife report to the state legislature. “We found the law of New Mexico and Arizona so strictly drawn that no variety of game birds or animals could be shipped outside their boundaries for any purpose whatsoever. We appealed to the attorney general of each state, and while we were assured of their personal inclination to help us out, they were bound by the law to rule against our request.”
Unable to secure turkeys from other states, California chose an unlikely source – Mexico. The state essentially hired a turkey bounty hunter, with orders to bring the birds back alive.
“We then decided to go outside of the United States and accordingly, in March 1908, W.E. Van Slyke of San Bernardino, who had spent several years in Mexico, during which time he had hunted and killed wild turkeys, was detailed by this Commission to proceed to the State of Sinaloa, Mexico, for the purpose of procuring and shipping to our State as many of these great game birds as could be obtained in four months. He delivered 22 turkeys and 11 ‘chachalacas’ at San Bernardino on June 15, 1908. They were liberated in two places at in the San Bernardino range of mountains at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, under the direction of Senator H.M. Willis (author of the hunting license law). Encouraging reports have been received from these plants, a shipment of 30 young wild turkeys, raised at the Game Farm, was made to the same section in August of the present year.”
The state ran a breeding farm at the time.
“The services to Mr. Van Slyke were re-engaged in October 1908 to procure additional stock to be used for breeding purposes at the Game Farm. He was again successful and shipped to us, via Mazatlan, 26 fine specimens, which reached their destination in excellent condition. From this stock there was raised at the Game Farm in the spring of 1909 upwards of 100 strong, healthy, young birds, of which number 48 were sent in care of Mr. Jay Argabrite to Wawona in October 1909, and liberated in the lower part of Yosemite Valley. Feed was scattered about, enough to supply their wants for several days. Although raised in captivity and not accustomed to anything higher for a perch than ordinary domestic fowls, they flew to the tops of tall trees immediately after liberation,” the report stated. “Conditions seemed favorable for them so far as feed was concerned and they have been reported as seen by several reliable persons, but no increase has been noted.”
Since they seemed to take the Yosemite, the game commission released them in another national park.
“A shipment of 34 birds was made to the Sequoia National Park in eastern Tulare County in November 1909 and placed in charge of Mr. Walter Fry, acting superintendent of the park, who has kept them under close observation and furnished this office with intelligent, trustworthy and most encouraging information concerning them. Quoting from his official report of January 1910, he says: ‘The wild nature of the turkey has fully reasserted itself; they are the most wary bird in the park. They will not run at the approach of an intruder, but will fly a mile before alighting.’ In February 1910, he reports finding a nest with five eggs. In March, two nests, one with 11 and the other with 16 eggs. On March 21st, he reports, ‘The wild turkeys doing fine. One hen has seven young birds.’ May 21st:’“Wild turkeys seen are doing fine; many tracks of young birds, all seen at various places.'”
The following year, the turkeys continued to thrive in the park.
“Under date of July 14, 1910, referring to this season’s shipment, he said: ‘Wild turkeys were this day liberated in the Sequoia National Park at the mouth of the Marble Fork of the Kaneah River. They were in good condition and no losses sustained. I have left a man to care for them for a few days, although there is abundant feed for them at the place. They seem quite contented in their new surroundings and some flew up into the tall trees.'”
According to the game commission, the turkeys would have a bright future in California. Little did they know how successful the birds would be at establishing themselves.
“For the season of 1910 we are pleased to report remarkable success, having raised upwards of 200 young wild turkeys, of which number 85 were sent to the Sequoia National Park, 10 to citizens of Porterville, Tulare County, who liberated them in a particularly favorable section, and 30 to San Bernardino County. We feel greatly encouraged over the success attained thus far in the introduction of these magnificent game birds, and firmly believe that they will establish themselves permanently. There is no reason in our opinion why they should not thrive in this state. They have been known for many years in Arizona and New Mexico, and would, we believe, have reached California but for the great American desert, which encompasses our entire southern and eastern borders, and has always been an impassable barrier.”
Turkey swindler lands in San Quentin
As the state tried to get wild turkeys to flourish in California, another man was facing time for swindling farmers out of their poultry.
Sam C. Tomsky was arrested in San Francisco on a misdemeanor charge of forgery, but he also faced felony charges out of Colusa and Yolo counties. Tomsky’s crimes were all tied to turkeys.
“Tomsky … charged … with buying turkeys in large numbers and paying for them with checks that were returned marked ‘no funds,'” reported the Sacramento Union, Jan. 28, 1911.
His father was an attorney and used every tool at his disposal to save his son. Two years later, a Yolo County Superior Court judge ordered the younger Tomsky to begin a five-year sentence.
“Tomsky, the young man who swindled a number of Yolo County ranches on turkey deals, … is under sentence of five years in San Quentin State Prison,” reported the Union, March 18, 1913.