Hardly a Thanksgiving goes by without someone mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s affection for the Wild Turkey, North America’s largest game bird. It’s no wonder Franklin wanted to make it our national bird – depending on its mood, the male turkey’s head can be red, white and blue.
The Wild Turkey is the only bird species in North America identified by name as wild. Perhaps the name just serves to distinguish it from the domestic variety, or maybe it is meant to denote the turkey’s most conspicuous characteristic – it is profoundly inconspicuous. Furtive, it creeps in and out of the woods like a wraith. First it’s there, and then it’s not. That said, a strutting Wild Turkey is the bird that decorates the napkins on your Thanksgiving table.
A streamlined version of the barnyard turkey, the Wild Turkey has a comically small naked blue head covered with wart-like caruncles, a neck with a bulbous dewlap, bronze feathers, and rusty tail tips. A fleshy appendage called a snood projects from the top of its bill. Mature males, known as toms or gobblers, have a beard of long bristle-like feathers dangling from the breast and a sharp spur on each leg. Hens are smaller with a smaller snood, and only occasionally do they have a beard.
For most of the year turkeys can be found roaming the woods in one of four different flocks. The toms hang out together and have little to do with the females and the kids. Hens that don’t successfully mate or that lose their brood also form a flock and wander the countryside feeding and talking about what cads men are. The third flock is the family. It consists of a mother hen and her offspring. As the mother hen’s young males – jakes – get older, they begin to act like teenage boys, whereupon she drives them away and they join up with the fourth kind of flock that is made up of adolescent males. These young punks of the turkey world have only one purpose – to count the days until they become toms. The girls stay home with their mother.
Springtime is a delirious season for turkeys – the toms gobble to attract the hens and when the two flocks find each other the gobblers fan their tails, fluff out their feathers, and strut around like John Travolta. But turkeys are more sophisticated than you may think. The meeting of the hens and the toms doesn’t turn into a wild turkey orgy. The dominant male is the first to mate and the other toms only mate when he is “occupied.” The hens only breed when they are in the mood.
After mating, each hen goes off by herself, scratches a shallow depression in the ground beneath a shrub, a windfall, or a low branch and begins to nest. She will lay one egg a day until a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs is complete. Only then will she begin to incubate her eggs. It is important that all eggs hatch within a day or so of each other because turkey hatchlings come into the world fully feathered, eyes open, and ready to rock and roll. After her eggs hatch, the hen leads the hatchlings away from the nest and broods them on the ground until they begin roosting in trees. She protects her poults, but they must feed themselves. Insects are the first food they choose. Protein rich bugs help the young birds grow fast. After a few months, they are eating seeds, fruit and acorns, soon to take on the aspect of adult birds and assume their places as heirs to a million years of accumulated turkey wisdom.
Eat more chicken. Happy Thanksgiving.
Tate is a Carrollton resident and local bird enthusiast.