Big Birds #1 Wild Turkeys

October 2015

by Linda Martinson

Wild turkeys are a common sight throughout the year at Richland Ridge. They are distinctive birds and instead of flying away when spotted on the road, they stalk into the forest looking slightly indignant at being disturbed. Both wild turkeys and their domesticated cousins that we eat at Thanksgiving are native to North America. Of the five subspecies of turkeys in the United States, the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most abundant and is widely distributed everywhere east of the Mississippi River from southern Canada to northern Florida. It also has the loudest cries and is the most difficult to hunt.

Sometimes called “forest turkeys,” Eastern wild turkeys now number about 5.3 – 6 million  and are hunted throughout their range. During the early 1900s, however, the entire population of wild turkeys in the United States fell to a low of about 30,000 from over-hunting and deforestation. By the 1940s, there were only a few pockets of turkeys left in some localized sections of the Appalachian Mountains. Since the 1970s, there has been a concerted effort to promote breeding and to re-introduce wild turkeys throughout the United States and Canada and it has been quite successful.

Wild turkeys are big birds, often as tall as 4 feet and weighing as much as 30 pounds. They evolved more than 11 million years ago, and there are only subtle differences in the plumage, habitat, and behavior among the different subspecies. For thousands of years, wild turkeys have been considered a proud and valuable bird by both Native Americans, who prized their eggs, meat, and feathers and who sometimes penned and domesticated them, and by the successive waves of immigrants to the American continent.

As their long and successful evolution indicates, wild turkeys are a very adaptive bird. They prefer living in hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered meadows, pastures, marshes, and other openings, but they can forage in almost any dense native plant community as long as there is some tree cover with canopy openings available. Turkeys are omnivorous; although they prefer eating acorns, nuts, berries, seeds, and roots, they also eat insects, lizards, and small snakes. They will visit bird feeders and even eat a wide variety of grasses. Because they can eat so many different kinds of food, turkeys can live in large numbers in small areas. Despite their weight, they are excellent and agile fliers and often perch in trees, especially at night. Groups of turkeys often flock together, especially during the winter.

Wild turkeys are quite vocal, often heard more than seen. Their various sounds and calls are described as any of the following: gobbles, clucks, putts, purrs, yelps, cutts, whines, cackles, spits, and kee-kees. Male turkeys gobble most often in the early spring during the breeding season. Their gobbles are loud and can be heard up to a mile away. Males are larger than females, and their plumage is more colorful, dark chestnut brown with patches of red, purple, green, copper, and gold iridescence. All turkeys have more feathers than most birds, up to 6000 on each adult bird, including 18 large tail feathers in the male’s characteristic fan. They have long and powerful legs, and they run fast with a top sprinting speed of 55 miles per hour. Like all birds, wild turkeys see in color. Their daytime vision is excellent, three times better than the eyesight of humans with a 270 degree range, but they have poor vision at night. Wild turkeys usually live 3 – 10 years, although they have been known to live as long as 15 years.

Adult males, called toms, have a large, bald heads, red throats, and red wattles on their necks. They also have other fleshy growths on their heads called caruncles, and a long fleshy growth over the beak called a snood. When males get excited, their snood, caruncles, and bare skin become engorged with blood and can change color in seconds becoming red, pink, white, or blue, with white indicating the most emotion. Males typically also have a “beard” of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of its breast and averaging about 9 inches long. Tom turkeys are polygamous and mate with as many hens as they can. Often they court in groups or pairs, strutting for the females by spreading their impressive tail feathers, flashing their changing colors, drumming, gobbling, and spitting. This courtship behavior begins in early spring, while the turkeys are still flocked together in their winter area.

Photograph by turkeyhunting.com

After breeding, a female turkey will not lay her eggs until she has found a suitable nesting site. Turkey hens scratch out a shallow nest on the ground, usually surrounded by vegetation and covered by some light brush cover, but still open enough to spot predators. It takes about two weeks for a hen to lay 9 to 14 light brown speckled eggs. She only lays one egg a day, and visits her nest just long enough to lay it. The rest of the time she is eating vigorously, preparing for the incubation period which starts after the eggs are all laid. This is a dangerous time for a hen, because she stays on her nest almost constantly, day and night, for about 28 days. The chicks, called poults, are born ready to forage with the hen and are ready for flight in about 10 days. The mortality rate for eggs and poults is very high. Only 10 to 40 percent of wild turkey eggs hatch successfully, and then only about 25 percent of the poults live past their first month.

The most common predators of turkey eggs and poults are raccoons, feral cats, opossums, skunks, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Some snakes and raptors also attack poults, especially during their vulnerable first few weeks. Poults are nearly adult-sized after six months, and then they are called jennies or jakes. Hens and larger juveniles are vulnerable to coyote, bobcats, and great horned owls, but tom turkeys are usually only killed by human hunters. Wild turkeys prefer to run away when attacked but if they are cornered, they will fight desperately with the large spurs on their legs and their beaks. Tom turkeys are particularly aggressive in self-defense.

So why is our brave and noble native American bird called a turkey after a large country in Eurasia? The story from an NPR interview in 2008 is that by the1500s, most of the luxury goods sold in Great Britain were wholesaled through Turkey, e.g., woven rugs from Persia, carpet bags from Hungary, spices and flour from India, and a large guinea fowl from Africa. The British began to refer to all goods obtained from Turkey with the adjective “Turkey,” as in Turkey rugs, bags, flour, etc. And the large tasty guinea fowl from Africa was called a Turkey-cock, gradually shortened to just turkey. When the British colonists arrived in America in the 1600s, they also called the large forest birds that they found in the new country “turkeys.” 

Our turkeys have been domesticated worldwide for meat production, with Americans eating the most, averaging 18 pounds annually. But only English-speaking people call the bird a turkey. Everyone else calls them some derivative of “India,” for example, in Russia, “Bird of India,” and in Turkey, a “Hindi.” Given how adaptable turkeys are, that’s reasonable enough. 

Male wild turkey in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA. He frequented the area on Beacon Street between Washington Square and Cleveland Circle for quite a while. Sasha Kopf for wikipedia.com

References: turkeyhunting.com and Wikipedia