Gobble, gobble, gobble — it is once more Turkey Day. This huge bird was common over much of the Eastern states and came west along the shrubby area of the Plains watercourses. The adult males make the gobbling sound. The females call in a single yelp, and they both make a soft (“quit, quit”) call when feeding.
The males are rather pompous, displaying with drooping wings and spread, fan-shaped tail, whenever a female is nearby. The males are very jealous and will fight any other male that comes near a harem. Females lay large clutches of eggs, usually on the ground in a natural hallow or in between big tree roots. This ground nesting makes them vulnerable to predators. One female may occasionally lay eggs in another female’s nest. When this occurs, there may be as many as two dozen eggs in a clutch, and both hens are believed to incubate and care for the young.
It has always amused me to hear the tale of how turkeys got their name. It seems some of the early explorers captured some live turkeys and sent them back to France, where they were domesticated and traded with the Turks and sent to Turkey. These birds were then traded to the British, who further domesticated them. They did not have a name so were referred to as “those delicious big birds that came from Turkey.” Soon they would be called “turkeys.”
Early settlers found these birds to be very tame and easily approached, so they were killed in great numbers and soon came close to extinction. The birds also learned to be wary and now are very difficult to get close to. When their numbers began to decline, it was the Game and Fish Division of Pennsylvania that figured out how to increase the numbers of wild turkeys. The Eastern birds had brownish rust tips to their tail feathers, and those were the birds sent to Europe and domesticated. These were also native in much of the East. Pennsylvania wanted to increase its wild birds, which, by then, had become wary and were considered one of the best game birds. So as not to domesticate them by raising them in captivity, low fences were designed to hold females in large areas, but the fences were built low enough to allow wild males to fly in. This produced many nests with large clutches of eggs that hatched and grew up to be wild birds.
Other states have tried similar programs, sometimes introducing wild birds from areas where they still existed in fair numbers to areas where they had once been but were no longer.
When we moved here 44 years ago, there were no turkeys to be seen around Evergreen. The Division of Wildlife introduced a few pairs, and they apparently found our ponderosa pine forest to their liking and our shrubby stream valleys and plateaus with their Gambel’s oak thickets just what they had been looking for. The have done very well, and today I know of several places where you can see winter flocks of up to 50 birds.
Turkeys roost in trees at night as a way of avoiding predators and, once they find trees with big limbs on which they can roost, they often return to the same trees every night. The young are quite vulnerable to predators until they are big enough to fly up to these roosts. Therefore, a good many of the young are lost in the first few weeks when they can’t fly. Nevertheless, their numbers remain low.
Our local turkeys have white instead of buffy tips on their tail feathers and on their secondary wing feathers. This subspecies is known as Merriam’s turkey, and because of the white barring appears to be much paler in color. Their head and neck are unfeathered. They have a wattle that is a red fleshy growth that dangles down over their beaks, and the males have a cluster of blackish, undeveloped feathers that form a tuft on their breasts. Sometimes the females also develop tufts but can usually be told from the males because they and the young birds are smaller, duller and usually lack the breast tuft.
Turkeys are extremely beneficial, for they feed their young almost entirely on insects. When mature, they eat acorns, ponderosa pine seeds, fruit, other grains, nuts, seeds and leaf buds.
The male wild turkey has a 2-inch-long spur on his leg, which often makes his fighting with other males a dangerous and bloody affair.
There are six subspecies of turkeys in North America, but our southwestern birds can be told by their creamy or white tips. Domestic turkeys were raised from the Eastern race, which has a brown band across its tail. Domestic turkeys have been bred to produce what people like best, so they now have much more breast meat and are meatier in general, making them the “perfect bird for Thanksgiving.” Enjoy yours!