I love Thanksgiving, in part because I am an avian vet and this is a bird holiday involving a very special bird — the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Wild turkeys are the heaviest of the poultry species, or galliformes. The domestic turkey that we cook for our tables on Thanksgiving was bred from a subspecies of the wild turkeys from southern Mexico. While the wild turkey is a darkly colored brilliant bird, the domestic turkey is bred to grow rapidly and have white feathers — all for an important meal on the third Thursday of November!
As suggested, there are a number of subspecies of wild turkey. There is the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), which is the one encountered by the pilgrims on their first Thanksgiving. In the United States, these magnificent large birds range from Maine to northern Florida and also into the northern reaches of Canada. They are associated with woodlands and edges of woods. They can stand up to 4 feet in height, and males may reach up to 30 pounds! Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was thinking of a particularly magnificent Eastern wild turkey when he suggested that the turkey be our nation’s symbol.
There is also the Osceola Wild Turkey, or Florida Wild Turkey, (M. g. osceola) that derives its name from the Seminole leader, Oseola. These turkeys are smaller and darker, with an iridescent purple- green coloration. Another turkey subspecies, the Rio Grande Wild Turkey (M. g. intermedia), ranges from Texas to New Mexico up to Oregon and is more adapted to a prairie habitat. It has much longer legs, and its feathers have a green coppery sheen.
The Merriam’s Wild Turkey (M. g. merriami) has a limited range along the Rocky Mountains and the area around Mt. Hood, Ore., where it was reintroduced. This bird is noted for the white tips of the feathers along its back. Additionally, there are two subspecies of wild turkey from Mexico; Gould’s Wild Turkey (M. g. mexicana) and the South Mexican Wild Turkey (M. g. gallopavo). It was this second subspecies that the Aztecs domesticated and the Spanish brought back to Europe for food. This domesticated turkey was bred throughout Europe so that the Pilgrims were thought to have brought it back to the Americas!
It is the wild cousin that I am the most familiar with on my farm in Ohio — the Eastern wild turkey. Having watched them closely on the farm these past years, they have made me laugh —as well as cry, such as when a mother hen was run over on the road and her chicks surrounded her dead body. They have a complex social structure, and their calls and vocalizations reflect that. I have learned their call when I put out the morning food at the bird feeder, as well as their alarm call.
The Turkey Walk & Talk
A turkey can be comical in appearance, with a long snood (fleshy appendage on the top of the beak in males), a wattle beneath its lower beak, red and blue skin (depending on emotional state and ranking) and its head covered with caruncles, a type of fleshy growth. Males have a tuft of modified feathers called a beard, which is longer in mature males.
A turkey’s gobble can be heard for close to a mile. The males will gobble particularly in the spring for mate selection, and they also make a drumming sound that resembles a car backfiring. They will drag their wings and strut about with their tails upright, and the light hitting them makes them absolutely brilliant! Watching them, I’m reminded that many a young human male has strutted his stuff to get the attention of females and position himself in his peer group. Male turkeys sometimes fight in the spring, jumping and kicking each other in the chest. A male may push his beak down the throat of another, and the two will wrestle each other’s head and neck for position. Other turkeys crowd around and watch to see the victor.
I could stand there for hours watching them in the sunlight hitting their feathers. The colors shift from bronze and copper to green, gold and blue, depending on the position of the feather relative to the sun.
Typically, over the late spring to summer, the hens will be solitary and then, one day, eight to 10 chicks are following after them. As ground nesters, they live a precarious life here on the edges of the woodlands; other areas they do much better. But, here on my farm, predators are out to get the hens on the ground or their chicks. Foxes, raccoons, coyotes, owls, and even eagles, all make their mark and it takes a savvy turkey to avoid their predation.
At about 10 days of age, the chicks are able to start to roost, making them less vulnerable. In the fall and through the winter, the hens and toms flock together by day and then roost together at night. Right before dusk, I often hear the heavy beating of their wings as they fly up into the trees and then clamber from branch to branch for just the right spot.
Young turkeys have to learn how much weight a branch can tolerate, but eventually they learn to spread their collective weight about the trees. I can only image them bouncing around at night on their branches as the wind howls in the winter.
Turkeys have been clever enough to survive through the millennia. Their camouflage as they enter the woods has confounded many a hunter. They are resourceful, eating nuts, insects, grasses and berries.
If you’re fortunate enough to live near turkeys, count your blessings. If your familiarity with turkeys comes once a year in November, give thanks for these magnificent creatures. Have a happy Thanksgiving!