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This Week’s Creature Feature: The Wild Turkey

Ben Franklin’s preferred national bird

I photographed this wild male turkey strutting in a dry river bed at Arches National Park in Utah.
      The wild turkey is the most successfully managed wild animal in the U.S. In the late 1800s, the bird was almost extinct in Texas and New England and severely reduced elsewhere. To try to save the species, conservationists initially released farmed animals into the wild. They did not survive. That led to catching and transplanting wild birds from areas of stable population to areas with good habitat but no turkeys.
      With regulated hunting and habitat management, wild turkeys now live in all states but Alaska. That’s a bigger range than Meleagris gallopavo enjoyed before hunting colonists shot the species nearly to extinction. Maryland, whose bird is M. g. silvestris, now has a population of about 30,000.
       A flock needs 500 to 1,000 contiguous acres, at least 30 percent forested, to thrive, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The birds are omnivores, eating anything from acorns to lizards. Sometimes when they encounter a predator like a snake, as a group they walk in a circle around it.
      Of the several subspecies, I think the dark but iridescent Osceola turkey from Florida is the best looking. Out west, the turkeys are lighter-colored and smaller than their eastern cousins.
      Each subspecies has its own look, but all share several traits. The males, larger than the females, have a cluster of very long chest feathers that are called a beard. Around their faces, they have projections of brightly colored skin called wattles. During breeding season, males collect as many females as they can into a harem and protect the harem from other males.
      To attract the females, the males find a clearing to do a strutting dance. They make the famous gobble-gobble sound, puff up their body, fan their tail feathers and then strut stiffly around the females. If other males show up at the dance, the biggest and most aggressive one will push the lesser one out of the clearing, becoming the winner.
      When mating is over and a nest is being made, the male stops all parental care. The female makes shallow depressions in grasses or plant debris and lays five to 14 eggs. When the eggs hatch about 24 days later, the chicks, also called poults, start running around and eating on their own within a day. Frequently several mothers get together to raise the poults communally.
     When the males become sexually mature, they live in bachelor groups where they practice their dance steps and protect each other.
     Turkeys can fly, but usually not far. Females are lighter and fly farther and more often than males.  In the eastern U.S., they roost in trees at night, except when they are on a nest.
     Ben Franklin valued the turkey a better national bird than the eagle. Turkey probably was part of the first Thanksgiving feast, but not until about 1800 did it become the national dinner bird.