Most of us have strong associations with turkeys even if Thanksgiving dinner was not part of our family’s traditional celebration. We learn to identify them at an early age, often by making turkey cutouts for handcrafted Thanksgiving cards, hearing stories about the first Thanksgiving, and learning of Benjamin Franklin’s famed appreciation for the bird. They are unmistakable. Come November, turkeys seem to be everywhere– in stores, on television, on the radio, and even at the White House.
But how much do you really know about Wild Turkeys?
After being hunted to near extinction in the early twentieth century, Wild Turkey populations have rebounded, regaining and perhaps even expanding their range. They can now be found in all of the lower 48 states, plus Hawaii, and have a global breeding population estimated at 7.8 million (with 89% in the U.S., 10% in Mexico, and 2% in Canada).
Wild Turkeys are one of only two domestic birds native to the New World (the other being is the Muscovy Duck). As game birds go, the turkey is certainly an imposing one. With its large frame, long legs, distinct tail feathers, and territorial tendencies (if male), you certainly don’t want to be on the receiving end of a turkey’s bad mood. They may not be as aggressive as Canada Geese but they can be just as stubborn.
Despite their popularity as game birds, turkeys are notoriously difficult to catch. They have extremely good eyesight, spook easily, are wary of humans, and can learn and remember various hunting calls. Even so, they have remained a long-standing popular dinner item, revered by both the Aztecs and Native Americans. In fact, the turkey’s popularity, along with its large size and compact bones, is believed to be partly responsible for the bird’s well-established fossil record. The oldest fossils, found in and across southern United States and Mexico, place the birds at over 5 million years old. For comparison, this means that turkeys were roaming around at least a million years before our ancestors developed the ability to walk on two legs (over 4 million years ago).
Turkeys are omnivores, eating a diet consisting of many of different seeds, nuts, berries, and a variety of insects, snails, and salamanders. They live in open forests that have plenty of clearings and get around primarily by walking but can also run, fly, and even swim (when threatened). At sundown, turkeys roost in trees, flying to the lowest limbs and them moving upward limb by limb until they reach a suitably high spot.
During mating season, males put on elaborate displays, strutting with tails fanned and wings lowered. They breed with multiple mates in a season and once finished form all-male flocks, leaving the females to rear the chicks on there own. Females travel in family groups with their chicks, often combining with other family groups to form larger flocks. Each flock has an independent pecking order, with the females maintaining a stable hierarchy while the males’ is constantly changing.
Wild Turkeys are typically the most active in the morning while they are out foraging in clearings, field edges, and roadsides. Although sometimes harder to spot than other wildlife neighbors, according to a DOEE biologist, Washington D.C. has a healthy population of Wild Turkeys. They have been seen in Rock Creek Park, Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Fort DuPont, Oxon Run, Shepard Parkway, Bald Eagle Hill, the National Arboretum and along the C&O Canal. If you are hoping to catch site of a Wild Turkey this fall, you might try looking near open areas with nut-bearing trees such as oaks (particularly red, white, chestnut, and black oaks), Hickory, American Beech, and White Ash.
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