A “Bird of Courage”

The eastern wild turkey, a member of the galliformes order, is a delicious mouthful for man or beast. One of five distinct subspecies of wild turkey found in the U.S., it is also the most widely distributed. Benjamin Franklin called the turkey a “bird of courage” and urged that it, rather than the bald eagle, become our national symbol. He called the eagle a “bird of bad moral character” and a “real coward” that stole fish from other species, such as the osprey.

One of the largest birds of the U.S., adult turkeys grow to between 16 and 25 pounds; some males grow to around 30 pounds. In 1854, Vermont experienced a near total loss of turkeys because of unregulated hunting and the 75 percent clearcutting of woodlands, but the release of 31 New York birds in southern Vermont in 1969 by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department restored the species. Vermont wild turkeys have been used to restore other New England states’ populations.

The newest F&W Big Game Management Plan (2010-2020) counts turkeys as one of its Big Four species, together with moose, deer and black bear. The plan’s goal is “to preserve the tremendous hunting opportunities and provide hours of wildlife viewing, and to educate the public about how development can fragment and compromise turkey habitats.” A turkey’s home range may be from 400 to 4,000 acres. The Champlain Valley provides excellent habitat with its larger fields, forests with nut-bearing trees, and evergreens for shelter. In the summer, turkeys eat insects found in tall grass and nests in shrub areas. As the seasons progress, they eat a variety of grasses, moss, tree buds, seeds and small reptiles and amphibians. Turkeys also enjoy foraging in farm fields. They hunt for food early in the morning and then again in the afternoon and like large trees for roosting at night.

Turkeys are social animals with a social order, traveling in flocks of about 30. These are in groups of hens (Jennies) and young birds, and in groups of bachelor males. The males, Toms, or younger Jakes, will strut in the spring with the dominant male to attract the hens. The peak of mating behavior is usually reached in mid-April. By winter the flock size can be 200.

The best thing to do when viewing turkeys is to be still and quiet. They have excellent sight and hearing. If you give them space and are quiet, they may not run off at up to 25 miles an hour or fly away at up to 55 miles an hour.

Turkeys are polygamous, with the dominant male doing most of the mating. Turkey eggs are large and tan with black flecks. Females usually lay 10 to 12 eggs over a 12 t-o 18-day period in a slight forest litter depression. The eggs hatch in about four weeks, usually near the end of May, beginning of June. The babies, or poults, cannot fly for the first three weeks. Mothers teach them to scatter, hide, and come back to escape predators. Once they can fly, they shelter under their roosting mother’s wings, gradually moving farther away from her as they grow. By fall, they are often in adjacent trees.

Many poults never make it into adulthood. Lawrence Pyne, of VT Public Radio and the Burlington Free Press’s Field, Fish and Wildlife Journal, points out that “Everything eats turkeys—even the birds who steal their eggs.” Dennis Jenson, outdoor editor at the Rutland Herald, said, “The first two weeks of a poult’s life are the most precarious. Besides predators, they are also vulnerable to starvation or exposure in a cold, wet spring. A poult will start with around 11 siblings and by autumn may have seven.”

For a full-grown turkey, the predator risk is from coyotes, bobcats, fisher, great-horned owls (while roosting) and humans during hunting seasons in the spring and fall.

Some tidbits you can talk about during Thanksgiving dinner: wild turkey breasts taste like the domestic type; deep powdered snow is hazardous to a turkey’s survival in the winter; turkeys likely got their common name from their shipping routes through Turkey in Europe; turkey hunters try to get on site before dawn because turkeys “see everything;” the standard gun for turkey hunting is a 12-gauge shotgun; a turkey can swim by tucking its wings in tight, spreading its tail, and kicking; turkeys like to take dust baths; the flap of skin that hangs down over a turkey’s bill is called a snood; the flap of skin under a turkey’s chin may be known as a dewlap or a wattle.

Happy Gobble-Gobble.