I love Thanksgiving for many reasons! One in particular is that it is the only “bird” holiday. Turkeys are fascinating birds and deserve a better rap than being called a “turkey.” How much do you know about these large birds that grace our tables on Thanksgiving? Here are some facts that you may or may not know!
- In the early 1500s, European explorers brought back to their homes wild turkeys from Mexico, where native people had domesticated the birds centuries earlier. Turkeys quickly became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. Later, when English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them.
- Wild turkeys from the Americas have had a difficult time through our country’s history. While native to the Americas, they were hunted there nearly to extinction. As their numbers dwindled through the early twentieth century, people began to look for ways to reintroduce this valuable game bird. Initially they tried releasing farm turkeys into the wild but those birds didn’t survive. In the 1940s, people began catching turkeys from the wild and transporting them to other areas for relocation. Such transplantations allowed wild turkeys to spread to all of the lower 48 states (plus Hawaii) and parts of southern Canada. This has allowed them to flourish where once they were scarce – a true American success story!
- There are a number of subspecies of wild turkeys and some of these birds will have whiter feathers or lighter colored feathers on them. This trait was encouraged in domesticated turkeys, as the down feathers close to the skin were not so noticeable when the bird was prepared for cooking. Consumers preferred the lighter down to the usual dark down.
Here is some interesting information from The Ornithology lab at Cornell University concerning wild turkeys. For example, wild turkeys live year-round in open forests with interspersed clearings in 49 states (excluding Alaska), parts of Mexico, and parts of southern Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Turkeys in northeastern North America use mature oak-hickory forests and humid forests of red oak, beech, cherry, and white ash. In the Southeast, turkeys live in forests containing pine, magnolia, beech, live oak, pecan, American elm, cedar elm, cottonwood, hickory, bald cypress, tupelo, sweetgum, or water ash, with understories of sourwood, huckleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel, greenbrier, rose, wisteria, buttonbush, or Carolina willow. Southwestern birds are often found in open grassy savannah with small oak species.
Wild turkeys eat plant matter that they forage for in flocks, mostly on the ground but sometimes climbing into shrubs or low trees for fruits. In fall, winter, and early spring they scratch the forest floor for acorns from red oak, white oak, chestnut oak, and black oak, along with American beech nuts, pecans, hickory nuts, wild black cherries, white ash seeds, and other seeds and berries. When deep snow covers the ground, they eat hemlock buds, evergreen ferns, spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns, club mosses, and burdock. During the spring, they may dig up plant bulbs if nuts are scarce. In late spring and summer, Wild turkeys strip seeds from sedges and grasses, occasionally supplementing their plant diet with salamanders, snails, ground beetles, and other insects. Like most birds, they swallow grit to help digest their food.
But on my farm, these magnificent birds will come to my bird feeders and they like the cracked corn and wild birdseeds, particularly black oil sunflower seeds. Other folks that have bird feeders attest that they do the same thing. Those birds have adapted to being around humans, which can sometimes allow you to visualize them for periods of time. Most wild turkeys are secretive and appear to come from nowhere and then, as soon as you see them, they disappear into thin air. They tend to be in small groups but the size of the flock varies based on the time of year and the numbers of birds in the flock.
The hens nest on the ground making them vulnerable to a variety of predators and stay there with their young until the chicks are old enough to perch. That tends to be about 10 days of age. The young chicks are mottled in color as camouflage. It astounds me how the hen starts off and keeps on walking as soon as they all hatch. These family groups often merge with others making a larger flock of hens with their chicks as a form of protection. While turkeys tend to stay on the ground for most of the day, when frightened the hens and chicks tend to fly while the males tend to run away. At dusk, all turkeys will roost in trees. It is amazing to hear the rush of their wing beats as they take off into a steep ascent to the trees. It is like a whooshing sound with a heavy flapping. And since they often do this as a flock, you can see one take off and then another and another—somewhat awkwardly finding a branch that can hold their heavy bodies. You can see them bouncing around in the trees as they sort things out for their nightly roost.
If you have a large yard near woods, you can attract wild turkeys by planting nut-bearing or berry trees. Some people attract turkeys by scattering birdseed or corn on their lawns; just beware that this can also attract unwanted visitors such as rodents or raccoons. As indicated, they tend to like black oil sunflower seeds. These will need to be placed on the ground near your feeders, as they are ground feeders.
So when you sit down to your turkey dinner, lift your glass to this magnificent bird. This bird came back from the brink of extinction and now provides us with the white-feathered stock to grace our tables and fill our stomachs on this day for giving thanks.