Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The word “turkey” is often used to describe a stupid, foolish, or inept person. Ben Franklin, however, admired North America’s native turkeys greatly. In fact, he wanted the turkey to be the national symbol of the United States, instead of the bald eagle.
When Franklin was alive, wild turkeys were plentiful across southern Canada, much of the United States, and Mexico. Yet, by the 1930s, turkeys were nearly extinct. It wasn’t that the settlers feasted on turkey daily back then, although as the human population increased, the turkey population was affected. A greater threat to turkey survival was the widespread clearing of forests and habitat.
If it hadn’t been for laws regulating turkey hunting, coupled with huge wildlife restoration programs, it’s quite possible the birds may have become extinct before modern generations could see them. According to one source, only a couple thousand native turkeys were left by the 1930s. Now several million are living throughout North America. (It’s reassuring to know that the domesticated turkeys we buy in the supermarket are, by law, a different species. So go ahead and enjoy your Thanksgiving feast.)
When a birder spots an unfamiliar species, the first reaction is to differentiate it from similar species. With the turkey, identification is easy. No other North American bird looks or sounds remotely like the wild turkey, meleagris gallopavo. On our first sighting, we recognized the call of the male even before we saw the bird. This guy was saying, “Gobble, gobble, gobble,” just like you hear in cartoons. We certainly didn’t need to confirm the sighting with binoculars, either. This turkey was strolling across our front yard!
A turkey’s size makes the bird easy to identify visually. It is huge “” larger than any other North American species “” with adult males standing between three and four feet tall. The female is significantly smaller than the male, but still quite recognizable. Compared with the California quail that frequent our yard, you have an avian version of Mutt and Jeff. But they’re all large, with a small head; rounded wings; and a long, banded tail.
Wild turkey plumage varies among the subspecies. The adult male (called a gobbler) has iridescent blue, green, or copper feathers. His head has several notable features that grow and become more dramatic with age. Most of the tom’s head is bluish gray, covered all over with lumps and bumps. The wattle on the throat is red. Just how red depends upon the male’s mood “” the more excited he gets, the redder the wattle. Farther down, on the breast, you’ll see the “beard,” a tuft of feathers. It, too, lengthens with age “” on older males it can be a foot long. Males also have spurs on each foot that are used for defense. And, yes, these also lengthen with age, sometimes growing to two inches long. Females are smaller than males, and their feathers are usually drab brown or gray.
Turkeys are basically a ground-dwelling species, but a varied habitat is essential for their survival. They use open areas for feeding and mating, but they also require forested areas so they can sleep (roost) in the branches, away from predators. Open water is necessary, too, and when they also have access to agricultural fields, orchards, and marshes, their survival is that much easier. Sound like heavy demands? Not really, given that the home range of a turkey flock may span 1,000 acres.
Turkeys don’t migrate “” they spend their entire lives in the home range “” so they don’t need to move long distances by air or land. But they certainly can move quickly when threatened. For the most part, turkeys prefer to outrun danger. They’re speedy for their size, too, capable of zooming along at nearly 20 miles an hour. But if predators begin gaining on them, turkeys will take to the air. They’ve been clocked flying at 55 miles per hour! They can’t stay airborne for more than a few hundred yards, but when descending from a ridge top, they’ve been seen gliding for more than a half mile. Generally, however, their wings are more often used for flying to tree limbs to roost.
The males of the flock have a pecking order, with the oldest and the largest toms dominating the younger, smaller ones. Turkeys are polygamous, and high-ranking males will breed with several females during the spring.
Courtship is serious business. The noise of a tom’s gobbling carries for at least a mile, and it’s up to the female to follow the gobbles and find the males. That triggers quite a performance, as the tom begins strutting around with his wings spread and his tail fanned out.
After breeding, male turkeys lose interest in their female counterparts. That’s okay, because she has plenty to do. Job one is to locate a nest site that is well hidden by brush. At the nest site, she begins by scratching a shallow depression in the earth, and then lays an egg. Since she lays just one egg a day, it will take her 12 days to build a clutch of average size.
Oddly enough, wild turkey eggs are only slightly larger than those of a domestic chicken, but you wouldn’t mistake one for the other. Eggs laid by turkey hens are tan with dark brown speckles. Like the females of many bird species, the hens don’t start incubating immediately, but wait until they are halfway through laying the eggs. Once the female begins sitting on the eggs, it will be four weeks before the youngsters emerge.
Wild turkey nests are highly vulnerable to predation, especially by snakes, rats, raccoons, skunks, and opossums. Several sources indicated that only one-third of the nests produce live young. However, if her first nest is raided by predators, the hen often finds another male and repeats the mating process.
Young turkeys, known as poults, leave the nest only hours after pecking through their shells, but their lives are still in considerable danger. In the following two weeks, poult losses often exceed 50 percent, whether due to predation, hypothermia, or simply getting lost.
Female wild turkeys begin “talking” to their youngsters while they are still in the shell. This way the hen-chick bond is already strong when hatching occurs. Researchers also speculate that she alerts the developing poults when it’s time to start pecking their way out of the shell. For the first four days after emerging from their shells, the poults feed on their eggs’ yolk reserves. When that’s gone, they learn to mimic their mom as she catches insects to provide the necessary protein. The youngsters will be approximately six weeks old before they start adding plant material to their diet. That way, by the time they reach adulthood they’ll be able to maintain the same varied diet of the adults: a mixture of insects, plant material, and the occasional small reptile. They can’t be picky eaters; one research team discovered that “their” turkeys had consumed more than 600 different species of plants and animals while they were under observation!