I thought we’d do a little holiday theme for this post. Every store in the country seems to have skipped Thanksgiving and November all together, but I’m going to pull us back a bit.
Let’s talk about one of our continent’s iconic birds, the Wild Turkey. They are big, boisterous, and beautiful (See Figure 1). I always overlooked the wild turkey as a dumb, awkward, chunky creature that strutted around in the woods, but then I watched a PBS Nature program about them. It really changed the way I see this bird, and I thought that there was no better time to bring them to the table (pun intended).
The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a large game bird that can be found throughout North America (See Figure 2). They prefer habitats of mature forests, preferably with good nut-bearing trees like oaks, hickories, beeches and pecans. They do especially well in these areas when there is some edge habitat or fields too. They can reach up to 24 pounds and have a wingspan of almost 5 feet. Lovely bronze iridescent feathers cover their whole body except for their head and neck, which can vary from red to blue and gray. They have dark wings that have large whit bars on them that are visible when they fly1. Yes, turkeys can fly. Although their body size and shape does not allow for the graceful flight of eagles or swallows, they will take off if startled or seeking to roost in a neighboring tree for the night1.
The turkey’s diet consists mostly of plant matter including fruits, nuts and seeds. In the spring, they can use their powerful legs and feet to dig up plant bulbs, and sometimes, they will supplement their diet with amphibians and invertebrates1.
During the breeding season, males put on quite a display. They puff out their body feathers, fan their tails, drop their wings (See Figure 3), and vocalize to try to show the females that they are the choice male to father their chicks (Video 1). Probably one of the funniest thing’s I’ve seen out in the woods was a group of three male turkeys fanning for a group of hens. The hens were pecking the ground and ignoring the toms no matter how hard they tried. After several minutes of failed strutting, the males gave one last look to see if anyone was interested and then slowly, slowly deflated. It was both sad and funny at the same time.
Once a female has bred, she will nest on the ground and lay 4-17 eggs that will incubate for 25-31 days (Figure 4). Upon hatching, little downy chicks will follow their mother and usually join other mothers and chicks in large groups1 (Figure 5).
Although these birds are now numerous and there are hunting seasons throughout their range, these birds suffered from habitat loss and overhunting in the early 20th century. Their large bodies and flavorful meat, as you know, made them a desirable food source for early settlers and continues to be so today. In the 1940’s turkey reintroductions began, and with regulated hunting seasons and habitat conservation, these birds have made a comeback and even expanded their range1.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is an organization of turkey hunters and enthusiasts who work to raise money and preserve habitat for wild turkeys. What I find interesting about this is that many times, conserving a habitat for a focal species can often lead to helping other species as well. When you focus on habitat, you help all the plants and animals that live there. If you would like to learn more about this organization visit www.nwtf.org.
To learn more about the Wild Turkey check out www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wild_turkey/lifehistory and watch “My Life as a Turkey,” a PBS Nature special.
I hope this has helped you gain a better appreciate for this fantastic bird. Come back December 4 to read about some of the different birds that my visit your bird feeder this winter.