Bird's Eye View | It's Time To Rethink Turkeys


Tweetings, fellow birders.  Thanks for flying in to read this column!  

Well, the holiday season has kicked off, which means it's time for that annual Thanksgiving feast.  Truly a wonderful date on the calendar, except of course for a particular species of bird, so I thought it best to serve up an article about them instead.  So, kick back and lets carve into this piece.  I only hope it knocks the stuffing out of you!

The fowl we are all most familiar with in November is known as the Wild Turkey.  Native to large areas of eastern North America and southern Canada, they are a beautiful specimen, typically seen in groups of half a dozen or more.  The male is larger than the female, decorated with gorgeous dark feathers layered in black and brown with a touch of green gold, the face blue and throat red (wattle).  When displaying the tail fans out in this same color scheme, lighter brown feathers ending in a band of black with brown tips.  A fleshy protuberance called a snood hangs from the top of the beak, which is more prominent during the courtship ritual.  The female is smaller but sturdy and strong, muted in color, still layered richly, yet lacking the feathered beard. Young lady turkeys are known as a Jenny, while an older female would be a hen.  As well, juvenile males are called Jakes, while adult males are Toms (or Gobblers).  Although heavy ground feeders, they can run nearly 20 mph, and can also fly, roosting in trees at night for safety and rest. So, if you happen to walk by one evening and hear them snoozing, for goodness’ sake, please don't wake them up!

Now, the hen can lay upward to 18 eggs, pale in color with brown spots, with incubation being less than a month (24-30 days).  The young are fairly grown after a few months and feed themselves, seeking out insects ravenously in their first few weeks.  The diet of a turkey is mostly plant material, that being leaves, seeds, grains, berries, roots, buds and bulbs, but also includes spiders and snails, perhaps even frogs, salamanders or snakes, their menu variety often determined by where they forage (like someone who lives close to a McDonald's!).  Being a game bird, turkeys are often hunted throughout their range, the female nesting on the ground under shrubs or in tall grass, making herself as inconspicuous as possible.  They have also been domesticated on large commercial farms, as many know, adopting the white feathers in lieu of the darker hues of the wild species.

Of course, if you've never been lucky enough to see a wild turkey in your travels, odds are you've at least heard their famous "gobble."  This is uttered by the male to attract females during mating season, but the birds also cluck and purr, as well as yelp, cackle and cutt.  Turkeys are or can be extremely aggressive when it comes to humans, sometimes even attacking those who get too close.  As always, please remember, they are wild animals, and will defend themselves if they are cornered or feel threatened.  This might be why it is said Benjamin Franklin favored this fierce bird over the Bald Eagle as our potential national symbol (but we've gone over that before!). In short, just please never approach a gobbler if you happen upon one.  I wouldn't want you to get in terrible turkey trouble!

Here's a couple of fun facts about this fine feathered figure:

The origin of the name "turkey" is uncertain, but may refer to a mistaken resemblance to guineafowl which were imported to England via Turkish traders from Constantinople (modern-day city of Istanbul in the country of Turkey). 

Adult turkeys can have nearly 6,000 feathers (they are their own pillows!).

Very young turkeys are called "poults," and a group of turkeys is often referred to as a "rafter."

Particularly aggressive turkeys have even been known to attack passing cars (especially in late November!). 

If lucky, a turkey can live up to a decade or longer in the wild (perhaps even 15 years!).

My final note:  in all seriousness, please remember that turkeys are so much more than just dinner or a paper place setting for your Thanksgiving table.  They are a wonderful native bird which we can all enjoy simply by observing them in their natural habitat.  Just seeing a group of turkeys crossing the street in the early hours of the morning can give us a sense of wonder and true delight. It seems to harken back to another time and place.  When turkeys, and ourselves, both roamed wild and free...

Take a moment this Thanksgiving and give thanks for the turkey, as well as for all our glorious animal friends.

Happy Birding!

bird's-eye view, turkey, benjamin franklin, bird's custard