The American Wild Turkey


American wild turkey.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

American wild tom and hen turkeys. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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)

North Carolina Aquariums: Partnering with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Local Community to Save Sea Turtles

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Hatchlings. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Maymie Higgins

The moonlight reflected off the North Carolina shoreline, illuminating the way she used her strongly developed forelimbs to drag herself several yards towards the dunes, just as her mother had done.  This Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) is truly a miracle.  She survived to the age of ten to thirty years, becoming a young adult, which is an age only 1 in 1000 sea turtles reach.  Her ability to migrate thousands of miles and find the same beach upon which she had hatched, known as natal philopatry, is a miracle as well.  In the waters just offshore, she will continue to mate several times in the seasonal nesting grounds, and come ashore up to seven times to deposit and bury her eggs in a nest made by excavating and then covering a hole 18 inches deep in the sand. Each clutch might contain 100-126 eggs; even under the best-case scenario, the odds are against any of her offspring surviving until adulthood.  And while this sea turtle is fortunate to return to a birthplace that has not been destroyed by development or climate change, as so many nesting sites have, she cannot stay to protect the nests.  She has no physical capabilities to protect her eggs or to even to survive on land for very long. The eggs and hatchlings are on their own.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests make up the vast majority of nests on North Carolina’s beaches. Four other of the seven species of sea turtles, Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback Sea Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and rarely, the Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) will also nest there. A fifth sea turtle species, the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), visits North Carolina waters, but does not nest.

All sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  There are a number of factors, in addition to development and climate change, that adversely affect the survival rate in sea turtles.  Before eggs have hatched, many of them are preyed upon by beach residents including raccoons, foxes, birds and humans. Hatchlings that successfully emerge must follow the moonlight to guide them to the ocean, but artificial light often leads hatchlings in the wrong direction, leading to car strikes in the roadways that run parallel to the shore.  Other predators for hatchlings include crabs, more species of birds and, for those sea turtles making it safely into the water, carnivorous fish.  Sea turtles cannot retract their heads into their carapace like other turtles and the skin of hatchlings is not yet tough, therefore providing no protection from predators.

Sea turtle hatchlings are also very tiny.  When I was an aquarist intern at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, we affectionately called our four publicly exhibited hatchlings “chicken nuggets” because they are about that size and weight at hatching.  With all these initial threats, the greatest threat still is at sea in the form of incidental capture in gill nets, shrimp trawls and other fishing gear.

In 1983, the N.C. Sea Turtle Protection Program was created by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and now coordinates the efforts of more than 1000 volunteers annually who monitor sea turtle nests along 330 miles of beaches from May to October during the 50-60 day incubation period.  An elaborate network that includes state and federal natural resource agencies, private organizations, veterinarians, wildlife rehabbers, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and all three North Carolina Aquariums combine their skills and resources to protect nests. These efforts include nighttime nest sitting, rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles and release of those healthy enough to survive in the wild again.

The North Carolina Aquariums play a key role in providing temporary housing for hatchlings that are too weak to get to the ocean on their own or are found far from the ocean when artificial light has led them in the wrong direction.  Once the hatchlings show the ability to eat and dive effectively, they are released into the Gulf Stream offshore.  Some of the hatchlings remain at the aquariums until reaching one to four years of age and during that time serve as ambassadors for educating aquarium visitors about sea turtle conservation.  These turtles are released as well.

All three North Carolina Aquariums respond to help sea turtles that have been stranded by causes such as propeller strike, hypothermia and entanglement in fishing gear.  The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is home to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) Rehabilitation Facility. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island provides medical care for turtles rescued in the central and southern parts of the North Carolina coast. The North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher also take in turtles in need of rehabilitation.

On a broader scale, it is not unusual for the North Carolina Aquariums to take in cold-stunned sea turtles rescued in other states and give them care and housing until fully recovered and healthy enough for release. Sea turtles are cold-blooded and therefore cannot regulate their own body temperature internally. They are vulnerable to the temperature of their environment and must move to warmer or cooler environments to thermoregulate. Cold-stunning occurs when sea turtles are suddenly exposed to cold water, causing them to become lethargic and unable to swim to warmer waters.  More often this happens to juveniles who have not left feeding grounds prior to the first cold front, usually in late November or early December.  There can be as many as 100 cold-stunned sea turtles being held over winter in the aquariums, sea turtle hospital and in other wildlife rehabilitation locations approved by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Sea turtles are of ecological importance for many reasons.  Unhatched eggs and hatchlings that do not survive provide nutrients for sea dune vegetation. Sea turtle eggs also serve as food source for predators in the ecosystem and as a food source for humans in some parts of the world.  On the ocean floor, sea turtles graze on seagrass, which stimulates productivity and nutritional content of seagrass blades.  Hawksbill Sea Turtles forage on marine sponges from coral reefs, allowing the coral to colonize and grow and preventing sponges from dominating the reefs, which are important to other sea life as well. Leatherback Sea Turtles have been known to eat up to 440 pounds of jellyfish in a day, providing some control over the increase in jellyfish due to commercial overfishing of finfish populations. Sea turtles have on their carapaces barnacles, algae and other organisms known as epibionts. Fish species such as sheepshead, wrasse, and angelfish as well as shrimp create “cleaning stations” which sea turtles visit to have these organisms eaten off. Birds often consume these epibionts too, while also taking advantage of a floating turtle oasis that provides refuge from sharks or just for a roosting rest in the sun during migration.

The sea turtle story is one of many examples of biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world working hard with other governmental organizations, NGOs, volunteers and sometimes even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.