Wild Turkey

The trees created a natural bower, covering the path, dimming the sunlight, dappling the grass below. Ahead of us a single turkey bobbed, leading us, occasionally turning to look over her shoulder. As we stepped into the sunlight, the turkey disappeared, a ghost evaporating from view. Instead, we could see the ancient tombstones rising out of the earth, declaring to all the mortality of mankind…

JJ Audubon

That little story took place several years ago when we visited the grave sites of some of Jim’s ancestors in western Illinois. The turkey in the tale was real, a little eerie, perhaps, but not a phantom. Indeed, wild turkeys are common. Native to North America, they range across the continent, most densely in the eastern half of the country, including Iowa and Illinois.  According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF):

From only 30,000 turkeys in the early 1900s to more than 7 million today, this intriguing species has truly made an awesome comeback.

Around us, we used to see turkeys now and then in our yard. Flocks of a dozen or more would wander in, checking the food supply, before wandering out again. We haven’t seen any for at least a couple of years, since there has been more development around us. According to the NWTF, their numbers have dropped substantially in some states recently due to loss of habitat. Here are some more fun facts about wild turkeys from the NWTF:

Two major characteristics distinguish males from females: spurs and beards. Both sexes have long, powerful legs covered with scales and are born with a small button spur on the back of the leg. Soon after birth, a male’s spur starts growing pointed and curved and can grow to about two inches. Most hen’s spurs do not grow. Gobblers also have beards, which are tufts of filaments, or modified feathers, growing out from the chest. Beards can grow to an average of 9 inches (though they can grow much longer). It must also be noted that 10 to 20 percent of hens have beards. Hens lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs during a two-week period, usually laying one egg per day. She will incubate her eggs for about 28 days, occasionally turning and rearranging them until they are ready to hatch. Wild turkeys like open areas for feeding, mating and habitat. They use forested areas as cover from predators and for roosting in trees at night. A varied habitat of both open and covered area is essential for wild turkey survival.

And from my favorite bird site, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

* The Wild Turkey and the Muscovy Duck are the only two domesticated birds native to the New World. * In the early 1500s, European explorers brought home Wild Turkeys from Mexico, where native people had domesticated the birds centuries earlier. Turkeys quickly became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. Later, when English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them. * It’s possible to distinguish wandering barnyard turkeys from wild individuals: Domestic turkeys have white tail tips like the original Mexican subspecies, while Wild Turkeys in North America have chestnut-brown tips.

Familiar and unfamiliar calls may be found here. Do you have wild turkeys in your neighborhood?

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5 thoughts on “Wild Turkey

  1. Jim in IA

    Thanks for the reminder about that turkey episode years ago. Let’s go back there in the spring.

    On some walks behind our house last year I did see a half dozen or so turkeys near the railroad tracks in the open field. I doubt is they are still around due to the development. It will be good when the work is over and things calm down again.

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  2. jimfetig

    As I hiked through the winter, turkeys were my only but consistent companions. Their various squawks, whistles and (yes) gobbles announced my passing as the various flocks tracked my progress with sonic radar. Occasionally the snowy trail would be tattooed with their imprints which reminded me of peace symbols. With them my lonely world was full. Without them, it would have been sterile and bleak. Thanks for your lovely story and all the best to you and Jim.

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  3. shoreacres

    I saw some wild turkeys on my trip last week. A few were along a farm to market road, and I saw a pair in a field where it appeared some grain had either been spilled or left for birds. A friend in the hill country had turkeys galore. We used to sit out on the back porch and watch the males show off. They were such handsome, yet ungainly birds. They surely can move, though, and disappear in a flash. Do you know the song Like a Turkey Through the Corn?

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I hadn’t heard that before. Really pleasant voice. Thanks!

      We saw many in a field, back by the tree line, as we drove to daughter’s on Thursday. They aren’t rare around here but it’s still a treat to see them. Better yet, to be close enough to hear them.

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