“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…For the Truth, the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird… a true original Native of America . . . a Bird of Courage…”
Benjamin Franklin, 1784
The traditional Thanksgiving Feast featuring America’s favorite holiday fowl
is but a recent memory as overstuffed Americans stumble into December
with thoughts turning toward all things Christmas.
So the story goes, this uniquely American bird strutted his way into Benjamin Franklin’s heart to earn his admiration and preference as our National Symbol. Franklin touted the Wild Turkey’s backwoods resourcefulness while decrying the laziness of the Bald Eagle.
Since we witnessed Wild Turkey Gobblers rapt with mating fever
fighting like Sumo Wrestlers, their faces flashing
Red, White and Blue,
I’m thinking Ben had a point.
With the arrival of European Settlers, the Wild Turkey found himself sitting square in the sights of frontiersman’s rifles and in the midst of dwindling habitat. By the 1930’s there were fewer than 30,000 birds left on the continent.
But, like his old rival the Bald Eagle, the Wild Turkey’s story is one of success. After a massive continent-wide effort at restocking, Wild Turkey numbers now tally at an impressive 7 million. However, since the late 1980’s biologists have been alarmed by the mysterious decline of the Eastern subspecies and are looking at habitat loss, increased predation, hunting regulations and climate change as possible causes.
New Mexico Game and Fish reports Wild Turkey populations as thriving with some 3,000 birds harvested by hunters in 2012. New Mexico is home to three of the five subspecies found in the continental United States with Merriam’s being the most numerous and wide spread as well as the one we see up here at 9,000 feet elevation in Eaglefire.
Our Turkey Girls first appeared as jennies or young females and were frequent visitors throughout this past Spring and Summer.
Sometimes they came running at the sound of our voices and would spend time with us in soft dialog as they pecked, strutted, and clucked about in the grass and wildflowers. Wild Turkeys have a vocabulary of over 30 different sounds. After they wandered away we could hear them calling to each other to stay together as they moved through the forest.
Other times they came up on to the deck to peer into the window looking for us.
They were not at all afraid of me and I got quite close with my camera.
But they flocked to Richard. He was their obvious favorite.
Deer were often present along with the Turkey Girls and watching these two species interact was fascinating. Clearly turkey do not entertain interlopers and deer shy away from a wing-flapping turkey flying at their head. Although we witnessed this behavior several times, I have to say, “Sorry. No Photo. I’m not that good of a photographer.”
In mid September the Turkey Girls’ visits dwindled and they moved away when they met us on the trail.
Now it’s December and we see only their tracks in the snow.
This Spring the Turkey Girls (average weight of 12 pounds) will mate with a handsome Gobbling Tom (average weight of 24 pounds) and each will lay some 12 eggs in a shallow depression in the forest floor.
The poults, feathered and ready to peck, hatch out in June to follow their mom through the forest learning to be a turkey. Their omnivore’s diet includes berries, grasses, pinon nuts, acorns, fruit, insects and small reptiles and amphibians. Their mother’s strong protective instincts, keen hearing and excellent color vision give the poults a fighting chance against predators such as owls, hawks, bobcats, skunks, coyotes, raccoon and bear.
Unlike domestic turkey, these wild poults will grow into strong legs and wings that allow them to run at 25 mph and fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.
At night they roost in the safety of tall trees.
Finally, I raise a toast to our Wild Turkey.
We look forward to next Spring’s visit.
May they winter well.
For more Wild Turkey facts, stories and documentaries:Audubon Magazine, November and December 2013
The National Wild Turkey Foundation
New Mexico Game and Fish
MY LIFE AS A TURKEY-a PBS Nature DVD