No one is certain what happened to Utah's wild turkeys. They vanished. What turkey dinners the pioneers ate they brought with them.

Earlier, much earlier, there were wild turkeys in Utah. Remains have been found in early Indian camps and in early Indian rock art that prominently displays the turkey, complete with fanned tail and spurs on the legs. The birds are believed to have been an important part of the early American diet.In 1925, there was an attempt to reintroduce the wild turkey to Utah-grown ponderosas. Eastern-reared turkeys were brought in and released. That was the last anyone saw of the birds.

In 1952, a second attempt was made. This time seven wild Western-reared birds from Colorado were released in the LaSal Mountains in Grand County.

That was the beginning of what is today one of Utah's wildlife success stories. Subsequent turkey releases throughout the state have resulted in a thriving population of the wild birds. Last week in the latest release, 27 birds captured in Utah were released in Sheep Creek Canyon.

Dean Mitchell, upland game manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, estimates Utah's population to be between 6,000 and 7,000 birds.

"From our habitat analysis (between land currently inhabited by wild turkeys and 13,500 square miles of suitable but uninhabited land) we've determined that Utah can hold 200,000 turkeys," he said.

"It may take us 20 to 30 years to reach that number, but Utah has some excellent turkey habitat. I can't tell you why they left. I can tell you the current population is doing well."

Utah is currently holding two subspecies of turkeys -- the Merriam's and Rio Grande. Each has its place in the Utah landscape.

The male or tom Merriam's will weigh about 18 pounds, a female or hen about 10 1/2 pounds. In the Rio Grande, the range is 17 to 21 pounds for the tom, 8 to 11 for the hen. About the only distinguishing difference between the two are the feathers on the lower back, the ones covering the base of the tail feathers. The tips are buff or tan on the Rio Grande, contrasting with white tips on the Merriam's.

Aside from that, the only difference is where the two like to roost. The Merriam's prefer mountain areas with large stands of ponderosa pines, while the Rio Grande chooses to stay in the river bottoms where cottonwood trees are found.

The incubation period is around 28 days. The most critical period for the chicks or poults is the first two weeks of life when they are on the ground. At around age 2 weeks the chicks are able to fly and can begin roosting in trees at the hint of danger.

The wild turkey is very different from the pen-reared birds people are most used to seeing. The wild birds are much slimmer than domestic birds, have longer legs, a more streamlined body and they can fly.

Currently, Utah is involved in a series of trade agreements with other states for wild turkeys.

In one, Utah is sending elk to Kentucky, which is sending eastern-reared turkeys to South Dakota, which is then sending Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys to Utah.

In the most recent trade Utah received 71 turkeys from Kansas. These birds were also released in canyons in Spanish Fork Canyon. The state is also working with Wyoming to bring in more Merriam's, California to get more Rio Grandes, and Texas and Oklahoma to bring in more Rio Grandes.

"In some cases we're buying the birds and in other cases we're trading. Texas simply wants to help us increase our population so it's donating the birds," said Mitchell.

In order to protect Utah's commercial turkey industry -- more than 5 million birds are grown in Utah annually -- Utah follows a very strict disease monitoring program through the state veterinarian. All birds entering the state are tested and vaccinated against disease.

The turkey is, indeed, an interesting bird. Its name is most commonly used in unflattering ways. Yet, in the early days of the country the turkey was once in competition with the bald eagle to become the country's symbol.

Despite their appearance, the birds are both wary and intelligent. There are a number of stories of unsuspecting hunters being lead on a merry chase through the woods by turkeys.

Hunters, in fact, find hunting the turkey a definite challenge. This is proved in the overall results of Utah's turkey hunt. In 1997, 339 hunters went afield for Merriam's and only 81, less than one in 10, tagged a wild turkey. Also in 1997, 229 hunters went afield for Rio Grande and only 127 tagged a turkey, fewer than one in five.

"Aside from being a smart bird, they have very acute eyesight and hearing. I've been told their sight is 10 times better than a human's," Mitchell said.

"The best method for hunting turkeys is to find a likely spot, sit down, be quiet and don't move. Then, using a turkey call for a hen, you try and entice one of the big toms to come to you. It's very difficult to try and stalk a turkey."

In the past there has been little interest in the turkey outside of hunting. Turkeys are not easy to spot in the wild. Mitchell believes that with the expanded population and the growing interest in wildlife, more people will begin to look to the turkey for viewing and photographing.

For those going afield looking for turkeys, experts offer these suggestions:

Turkeys are more active right after sunrise when they fly from their roosts to eat, and again in the afternoon prior to returning to their roosts.

Turkeys are very wary and do not tolerate sudden movement, bright colors and loud or unusual noises. So, be quiet and patient.

It is best to use binoculars or a spotting scope when looking for turkeys. For the serious bird watchers, a blind is recommended.

And, the best times to look for turkeys is from March through May, when the gobblers are busy trying to round up mates and are going through their annual mating rituals.