Nature Notes: Wild Turkey
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By Ed Robinson
Sorry to disappoint bourbon drinkers, but this article is about those long-legged, tall-necked birds you see in Harpswell fields or sometimes at your bird feeder. It is common to see up to 20 birds in a flock, most of them hens and their young. The more sharp eyes peeled for predators, the better.
A wild turkey bears little resemblance to bloated domestic turkeys that can barely stand and certainly cannot fly. However, they are the same species, our domestic bird having been bred in Europe in the 16th century from captured birds of the S. Mexican sub-species.
Adult hens average between 8-10 lb, while mature toms typically weigh between 18-24 lb (the record is 37 lb). These great birds have wing spans approaching 5 feet, and they can fly up to 55 mph for short distances. Those long legs allow turkeys to run up to 25 mph, and with spurs up to 2 ½”, they are a formidable adversary for smaller predators like foxes or raccoons.
As in most bird species, the male is the dandy, with iridescent feathers in many hues. His head can vary from blue to white to bright red. The hen is feathered in more subtle grays and browns, with a gray/blue head, the better to hide on the nest while caring for her eggs. Both sexes have fleshy lumps on their heads known as caruncles, and fleshy protuberances that hang over their beaks, called snoods. Toms will display a cluster of long chest hair known as a beard that can reach 10-12″, although hens will sometimes display shorter beards.
You may have wondered why turkeys are here today and gone tomorrow. These birds are opportunistic feeders that move around a great deal in their home range as different foods become available. They are capable of eating seeds and nuts, grass and clover, insects and earthworms, even lizards and small snakes. Buckwheat is a favorite food, and I’ve seen turkeys walking down rows of freshly planted corn, plucking my costly seed from the ground!
Toms hang out together most of the year, but during the spring mating season it is every bird for himself. In the first warm days of March or April the toms follow the hens hoping to get lucky, and you will often see toms strutting with their tails fanned out and wings held low to the ground. Serious fights, sometimes to death, can erupt between toms seeking to establish dominance and the right to breed receptive hens.
After mating, the hen will lay between 4-17 eggs in a ground nest. When the poults are born, the hen will feed them for a few days but then the small birds can find their own food. Until they gain body mass and heavy feathers, poults are highly susceptible to predation, and cold, wet weather is also a killer.
Turkeys are very vocal birds. Get in the woods before dawn, especially in the spring, and you will hear the birds calling softly to each other from tall roost trees before flying to the ground. Toms in the mood for love will issue loud gobbles that can be heard for hundreds of yards, depending upon the terrain and weather. A flock on the move, scratching the ground for food, will be in constant communication with clucks, putts and purrs.
One hundred years ago seeing a wild turkey was a rare thing since they had been nearly eradicated due to over harvesting, along with changes in farming and timber management practices. Thanks to aggressive trap and transfer programs, turkeys now reside in all 50 states and their population has grown in 40 years from 1 million to over 7 million. The wild turkey may have missed out on being named our national bird, but they add color, sound and drama to the woods and fields around us.