Nature’s Corner – Wild Turkeys

Article courtesy of Jessie Wilder

I was racking my brain to come up with a topic for this column and was distracted by a loud gobbling outside. I got up to close the window and looked down into the face of a wild turkey. He asked me to write about him and I said okay. Walking the roads and trails of Haw Creek I often hear the gobble of wild turkeys echoing through the trees. Small flocks of these beautiful birds can be seen scratching in the soil during the day or flying up into the trees to roost at night. Like most American kids, I first identified turkeys by seeing my Mom prepare this bird for Thanksgiving supper and tracing my hand to draw a turkey for Thanksgiving cards.

Fossil evidence of turkeys in the United States and Mexico dates back more than 5 million years and indicates the Aztecs domesticated turkeys long before Europeans arrived in North America.  The turkey was so important to the Aztecs as a source of food that they regarded the bird as a god. There were two religious festivals a year in the turkey’s honor. According to the Cornell Lab, in the early 1500s, European explorers brought home wild turkeys from Mexico. Turkeys became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. When English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them and they spread into the wild. Over the years they were over-hunted and their numbers severely declined. Conservation efforts in the 1940’s worked to restore this bird to healthy populations in all states. In 1970, there were only 2,000 wild turkeys in North Carolina but that number increased to more than 150,000 by 2009.

In WNC turkeys live in mature oak-hickory forests that also contain beech, cherry, and white ash trees with under-stories of sourwood, blueberry, mountain laurel, greenbrier and wild rose. They eat tree nuts, berries, seeds, and plants they scratch up from the ground. Occasionally they supplement their plant diet with salamanders, snails, ground beetles, and other insects.

In early spring, males (toms) gather to perform courtship displays. They puff up their body feathers, flare their tails into a big fan, and strut around while giving a gobbling call and chump sounds. Toms mate with multiple females (hens). When the hen is ready to nest she scratches out a shallow place in the soil about 1 inch deep and about the size of a dinner plate under a tree or in the middle of a field. She lays between 4-17 tan eggs with reddish brown spots. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, gray foxes, woodchucks, rat snakes, other birds, and rodents will eat the eggs if they find them. The incubation period is about a month and the chicks only stay in the nest one day. Their mother feeds them for a few days until they learn to find their own food. The toms give no care to the chicks. As the chicks grow, they band into groups composed of several hens and their broods.  Turkeys are one of our largest birds with some mature birds weighing in over 20 lbs.

Turkeys get around mostly by walking. Hens will fly when they feel threatened and toms will run. One little known fact about wild turkeys is that they can swim if they need to. They tuck their wings in tight; spread their tails and kick. At sunset both hens and toms fly up to roost in trees for the night where it is safer than on the ground. In our area coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, great horned owls, and people hunt wild turkeys. Some people like to attract turkeys in the yard by putting out corn but beware that this practice also attracts rodents.

I had heard that Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national symbol but found this to be inaccurate. I’ll leave you with this quote to straighten out that matter. “After independence, an early Congress debated the matter of a fitting symbol for its new country, settling on the bald eagle. Franklin was the United States’ ambassador to France and received a newly minted seal of office reflecting the choice. It drew sniggers because the eagle, it was said, looked more like a turkey. Franklin wrote: I am on this account, not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk’y. For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…. He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” (From A Short History of the Turkey, by Andrew G. Gardner, Colonial Williamsburg)