I have been comfortable around animals my entire life with two exceptions, each involving birds. One of those experiences was with a tom turkey. My husband and I were visiting Yorktown, Virginia, where the final blow to Cornwallis and the British Army happened and the Revolutionary War was won. On the grounds is a farm where rural 1780s Virginia is recreated with typical plant and animal species, including fowl of the era: chickens, Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata) and American wild turkeys (Melagris gallopavo). I was admiring the early spring crops when, from behind, I heard what sounded like a pleated shade being abruptly drawn and slammed against a windowsill. I turned and there he was, Tom Turkey in all his red-wattled, snooded, puffed-up glory and with his tail feather plumage in full, fanned out display. “Beautiful!” I thought, and kept touring.
A few minutes later, the pleated shade was drawn again, a bit more loudly. I looked around, thinking there must be a female turkey (hen) close by but could find none. I did see, however, that Tom was much closer. It occurred to me that I was the target of the display that repeated at least two dozen times over the next hour. Finding the encounter uncomfortable, I avoided eye contact in order to prevent an attack in response to what could be perceived as aggression on my part. Adult male American wild turkeys can weigh nearly twenty-five pounds and grow as tall as four feet. I’m only five feet, three inches tall. They also have spurs on each leg that can reach 3.2 cm in length. They can fly at up to 55 mph. Remember the raptors in the original Jurassic Park movie? I did!
Since this encounter, I have come to understand that this turkey had probably been hand-reared by humans and I was the target of misguided but completely normal turkey behavior. Because there were many tourists there, I choose to believe I reminded him of someone who had treated him kindly. He was inviting me into his harem. How sweet!
Fossil evidence of turkeys in the United States and Mexico dates back more than 5 million years. In fact, the Aztecs domesticated turkeys long before Europeans arrived. Settlement of the New World affected wild turkeys as adversely as it did many other species. By the 1900s, heavy market hunting, rapid deforestation and habitat destruction had decreased the U.S. population of wild turkeys to less than 30,000. Initial conservation efforts to increase the wild population included captive breeding but captive born turkeys did not survive once released into the wild. The next effort was much more successful as several states began trapping and relocating wild turkeys.
In my home state, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission trapped over 6,000 wild turkeys from the 1950s through 2005 and relocated them to 358 release sites. In 1970, there were only 2,000 wild turkeys in North Carolina but that number increased to more than 150,000 by 2009. The wild turkey is found in every state except Alaska and was even introduced into Hawaii for hunting ranches. Indeed, sportsmen were the most instrumental in restoring turkey populations by providing funding for restocking and relocating programs and by contributing to groups that conserve habitat such as the National Wild Turkey Federation. Audubon magazine published an article this month, written by T. Edward Nickens, with a comprehensive history of wild turkeys along with information about the latest conservation status.
In terms of environmental contributions, wild turkeys are one of the most popular game bird species and turkey hunting brings millions of dollars to the states in which they are hunted. This revenue is often used towards habitat improvement and conservation. They are also a food source for humans and other predators including bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles and great horned owls. Predators that will eat turkey eggs include raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, birds, groundhogs, bobcats and snakes. Wild turkeys are omnivorous and can positively impact the populations of the plant seeds and nuts they consume such as acorns. They also consume ground-dwelling insects and salamanders, along with the plant items, mostly by foraging after dawn and before dusk. Wild turkeys have no documented negative impacts to the ecosystems in which they reside. You may watch a video of wild turkeys as featured on CBS Sunday morning here.
While the story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Wild Turkey as the National Bird is not accurate, it is clear to see why he heralded the turkey’s attributes by comparison to the bald eagle, given his own personal experiences. I’ll leave you with that quote and a reminder to express your gratitude for the all the champions of the wild. Happy Thanksgiving!
“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)