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By Ed Robinson
April is a wonderful time of year (other than mud season), and the birds of spring offer us some of nature’s most endearing scenes: Canada geese on a pond looking for a nest site, bluebirds stuffing grass in their new home, ospreys gathering sticks to expand a nest on a dead spruce, and more. The passing of winter also triggers the courtship rituals of one of America’s great birds, the wild turkey.
While turkeys are attractive, with feathers of rich russets and tans that become iridescent in sunlight, they are no match for a Baltimore oriole. With protruding eyes, jowls, a head covered in fleshy caruncles and dangling snoods, the turkey is no beauty. And you won’t mistake a hen’s gravelly “cluck” for the cheerful “terr EEEEE” of the redwing black bird. But when it comes to drama, turkeys can put on quite a show.
As the snow begins to melt, look for turkeys in fields or along quiet roads, pecking for seeds and insects to rebuild fat reserves depleted during a long winter. While the hens feed, you may spot a nearby tom with love on the brain. He’ll drop his wings, plump up his body feathers and spread his tail in full glory, hoping to find a mate. The ladies will often ignore the amorous male, leaving him frustrated but persistent.
To fully appreciate the breeding antics of turkeys, you have to be crazy enough to arise at 4 a.m., and to spend time sitting near tall roost trees. As the first faint glow of sunrise appears on the horizon, the forest slowly comes to life. Along with the morning songbirds, you may hear gentle clucks and purrs from a flock of turkey hens as they prepare for a day of foraging.
Suddenly the morning calm will be shattered as a gobbler blasts his cry: “GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.” If another tom replies, our tom will throw back another string of gobbles again, and again. Other toms may join the chorus, their calls echoing through the woods and hollows. These calls are intended to attract willing females, and to warn off any subordinate toms from a gobbler’s harem.
After 15-30 minutes of this posturing, the birds fly to the ground and assemble in flocks. The tom follows the hens, trying to split one off for breeding. If his courtship is interrupted by another tom, things may turn violent. A mature tom can approach 25 pounds, with heavy wings, powerful legs, sharp toes and spurs up to two feet long and a beak that can strike a heavy blow. Spitting and hissing, their heads swollen in bright red and blue, two toms will sometimes fight to the death over a hen, while subordinate toms hang around hoping to pick up the spoils if the dominant birds are too weak to carry on the breeding cycle.
In our area, courtship peaks in mid-April to early May. When most of the hens have been bred and are sitting on their nests, the toms become almost desperate to continue breeding. They spend their days on the move, calling and looking for hens. A local friend reported two toms waking him almost daily at 5 a.m. in their earnest calling for hens. A friend in New York reported a gobbler walking through the open sliding door of his office, wings spread and hoping to find love. When his springer spaniel rose to the challenge, the turkey left in a hurry, knocking over a couple lamps. A lonely tom is susceptible to clever calling by a hunter looking to put a tasty turkey in the freezer.
Ben Franklin is alleged to have favored the wild turkey for our national bird, calling them “noble” and more intelligent than the winning bald eagle, which Franklin labeled as a scavenger. Noble or not, turkeys have made an amazing comeback from near extinction just 50 years ago to an estimated US population of seven million birds in all 50 states. While on occasion they may seem dim witted, I rate them as some of the most interesting birds around, and look forward each year to seeing them strut through the yard, looking for springtime love.