By Gail Cleveland
Although the Wild Turkey was well known to American Indians and widely used as food, certain tribes considered these birds stupid and cowardly and did not eat them for fear of acquiring these characteristics.
In early August, two Wild Turkey Moms and twelve chicks showed up in our backyard. At that time one female led the chicks while the other brought up the rear. Their target was underneath our bird feeder—-sunflower seeds. While the chicks ate, one Mom was always on duty, head raised, surveying the area for signs of danger. In late October, the “family flock” is still together, although it is now difficult to tell the Moms from the chicks. The Moms are a little larger, and those two heads are still the first to rise when something unfamiliar approaches.
“Our” turkeys are probably both males and females who remain near their mothers for the first year of life. Females leave during their first breeding season to nest as yearlings and often disperse further than males. Males often depart as a group of brothers, when they become sexually mature. One spring we got a glimpse of this “groupy” male breeding behavior as five or six males competitively gobbled at the side of the road, displaying their fanned tails, arched wings and doing what is called “feather rattling.” These male turkeys were competing for copulations in what is sometimes called a mobile lek. At this time the males also develop a bulge of fat and oil on their breasts; this sustains them during the mating season when eating is not a priority.
Our Moms have thin beards—an odd, hair-like structure that hangs in front of the breast plumage. Only 10 percent of females have the beard, while all males have this ornament; it is never molted and grows continuously, its length limited only by the continuous wear it receives from rubbing against vegetation and the ground.
If you want a meticulous yard, don’t encourage Turkeys! They obtain their food through walking searches, often scratching plant litter with their feet and beak. Seeds, grains, nuts, leaves, tubers and insects are their dietary mainstay. We first began scattering sunflower seeds which was a favorite. Later, cracked corn seemed a less expensive alternative. Now they come into the yard and stand expectantly, waiting for one of us to walk to the shed and scatter the feed.
How do they get nutrition from sunflower seeds or other nuts? Turkeys have a gizzard, a muscular section of the stomach lined with horny plates or ridges. It is here that hard-shelled materials that have been swallowed whole are rotated two to three times a minute and crushed. The gizzard is extraordinarily effective; objects that require more than 400 pounds of pressure per square inch to crush have been flattened within 24 hours when experimentally fed to a turkey.
Turkeys require secure, elevated nocturnal roosts, usually in a woodland. Our turks arrive near dusk, fly to a sitting bench or on the bird feeder in the back yard and then fly to the limbs of a favorite fir tree for their evening roost. The wobbly chicks were fun to watch as five or six vied for one branch; now they are proficient roosters.
At one time in our country’s history, turkeys were nearly extinct because of habitat loss, hunting, and disease from domestic poultry. The turkey today is a success story, having been introduced in the 20th Century to its original range and beyond. I am quite sure that they are a “debatable” success story. Are there now too many turkeys in some areas like the Flathead Valley?
There are two species of Wild Turkey, one originally in Central America and one in North America. The domesticated turkey was taken from Central America by the Spanish and then brought back to North America from Europe.
The turkey nearly became the national bird, loosing by one vote in Congress to the bald eagle.
The bird we call the turkey was so named in Britain because it was “foreign,” and foreign imports were called “Turks.”