|The Wild Turkey - A Wimberley, Hill Country, Texas and National Treasure.
The Wily Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo
Many people are quite surprised when they see their first wild turkey. Humans have changed or modified so many original turkey characteristics through poultry breeding that those we think of as domesticated seem barely related to the more intelligent, agile, foragers who were New World natives.
Wild turkeys are surprisingly agile fliers and can be very smart, unlike their domestic counterparts. Although they usually fly close to the ground for short distances no longer than a few hundred yards, they can reach a speed of 50 miles per hour. They are also fast runners and like to nest over water when they can, for added protection. Unless a flock has become conditioned to human presence, you'll not find it easy to creep up on these impressive birds.
North America almost lost the wild turkey. By the early 20th century, humans had hunted them to such an extent and diminished so much of their habitat that less than 30,000 were estimated to exist throughout the entire United States.
Thanks to preservation and efforts to encourage breeding within the surviving wild population, their numbers began to rise. Current estimates are as high as 7 million turkeys, and trap and transfer projects are introducing wild turkeys to parts of Canada. They are now found throughout most of the eastern United States, and in pockets throughout the western United States.
Only two domesticated birds originated in North America...the turkey and the Muscovy Duck. One way to distinguish the domestic from the wild turkeys (should you need it) is the color of the tail tips. Those of barnyard birds are white and those of wild turkeys are chestnut brown. The neck skin of domestic turkeys, or wattles, are heavier than those of wild turkeys. Snoods, the finger-like appendage that hangs over the bill, are longer on domestic turkeys, and breasts are much larger and broader.
Wild turkeys are sleek, alert and built for speed and survival. Generations of living in a harsh environment has sharpened their senses, and they remain in a constant state of caution.
These differences and others between the domestic and wild turkey are intrinsic, so much so that in the 1940s, when the wild population was still threatened with extinction, attempts to use game farm turkeys for reintroduction into the wild were dismal failures. They just didn't have what it took to survive...the right stuff, so to speak.
Wild turkeys are omnivorous, and enjoy small amphibians, insects, leaves, roots and tubers, seeds, grains, nuts and fruit. During mating season in the spring, the males become quite colorful with white foreheads, bright blue faces and scarlet necks. They manage only one brood a year, laying between 8 and 15 eggs. After a 27 to 28 day incubation period, the eggs hatch and the little ones are fledglings for 6 to 10 days.
Both the eggs and adults have many natural predators, although humans are the primary predator of adult wild turkeys.
The wild turkey has a wide vocabulary, ranging from a
contented purr that might surprise you, to a
yelp that sounds almost like a dog barking,
to the more familiar
gobble that can sometimes be heard up to a mile away.
My own first sighting of a wild turkey followed a sound I heard, someone chopping wood just outside my window, I thought. Baffled, I raced over and looked out the window to see a large male wild turkey, strutting his stuff. The sound I heard was his clucking, reverberating for several hundred feet.
It was quite a cluck.
The wild turkey is a striking, imposing, awe-inspiring bird, and one of the most entertaining you'll ever see if you're fortunate enough to get close enough to observe and enjoy.
Ironically, like other wildlife threatened by the encroachment of development, wild turkeys are becoming far too accustomed to human presence for their own good in at least one place. In 1972, Boston released 37 wild turkeys into the wilderness, where, as Ellen Goodman put it, they "promptly began to beget."
These first turkeys did a excellent job, one that resulted in a current population of 20,000 turkeys. They've also enlivened the lives of many Bostonians where, as Goodman points out, "Who knew they would make routine appearances on the police blotter for behaving like, well, turkeys?" (Click here to read the inimitable Goodman's take on wild turkeys.)
From an important Native American food animal to an adaptable neighborhood sight, this national treasure probably does deserve to have been designated the national bird, if not instead of, surely alongside the bald eagle.
-- M. Griffin