For those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and with it, thoughts of turkey and all the trimmings. While turkeys have become symbolic of the fall holiday season, for birdwatchers these birds make for a fun add-on to their life lists.
The Basics of Wild Turkeys
Wild turkeys are one of the largest game birds, and they’re found in North America all year round. These quiet but perceptive birds travel together. Males, hens and offspring adhere to a flock structure. It is unusual to find a lone turkey, and most common to spot more than fifty together at a time!
Surprisingly, these birds will visit backyards close to woodlands and rural areas that offer nut bearing trees. Though they aren’t known for their grace and beauty like smaller species of birds, they are smart. Wild turkeys have excellent hearing and eyesight. Don’t let their girth fool you – they can fly over 50 miles per hour for a short distance before having to land to rest. Slower on the ground, they’re able to run over 20 miles per hour if threatened by a predator. It is well worth the time spent to spot a wild turkey in its habitat.
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A Little Wild Turkey History
While North Americans have made the wild turkey a symbol of Thanksgiving, you might be surprised to find out they came from Mexico. The native Americans in Mexico first raised wild turkeys. Eventually they were exported to Europe. European settlers brought turkeys back to the New World, where they then bred with native turkeys again. In 1541, the English Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared that turkey should be the entrée for your holiday dinner. Cranmer ordered the large fowl “should be but one in a dish.”
Fast forward to 1947 when the American tradition of the president pardoning a turkey before Thanksgiving began. The lucky turkey would then retire to a farm where it lives out its days on display for the public. For one lucky turkey, it’s a wild life.
One Turkey – Five Subspecies
While there is only one species of North American wild turkey, there are five subspecies – Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam, and Gould.
The eastern wild turkey is the most common and heaviest of all subspecies. It’s rare for an eastern to weigh less than twenty-five pounds. With tail fans that range in color from bronze to copper, they are the loudest of the gobblers.
The Osceola is found only in Florida. With a smaller population than the Eastern, they weigh less but have the longest limbs of all wild turkeys. They spend their time in open pastures, often found amongst cattle and palmetto hammocks.
The Rio Grande have more specific range, from Kansas to Texas, as well as Washington to California. Unlike the Osceola with their long spurs, the Rio Grande has limbs that are shorter and their tail feathers are tan in color. Their habitats vary from arid plains to brush country. They are nomads by nature. If you can find their food sources, you're sure to spot them.
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The Merriam is widely distributed like the eastern wild turkey, but you’re sure to spot them in states west of the Missouri River. Smaller in population, they have the quietest gobble and the lightest color of fan feathers. You’ll spot them in rugged areas like the mountains of Idaho and the deserts of Mexico.
The Gould can only be found in Arizona and Mexico. This long legged, big footed subspecies is easily spotted with its almost snow-white fans. Because they inhabit mountainous and difficult to reach areas, they are the most difficult subspecies to spot.
Birdwatching for the Wild Turkey
The early bird catches the worm, and that could be said for wild turkey birdwatchers as well. If you want to spot them, plan an early morning excursion when these birds are out foraging for their meal. You’ll be looking specifically in places like large clearings, the edges of fields, and along grassy roadsides.
Bring along a fellow birdwatcher — the more eyes the better. You will need to keep a sharp eye out for these birds as it’s likely you will spot them from your car. The time of the year is an important consideration. You’re more likely to hear the gobbling of the male wild turkey during spring and summer. Don’t worry about missing them. These birds have a loud distinct sound that will carry from miles away.
Usually you’ll spot them on the ground, feeding. It isn’t uncommon to catch a glance of a group of turkeys flying into trees. The wild turkey takes to rooftop and tree roosts at the end of its day.
Wild Turkey Fun Facts
Whether you’re fortunate enough to spot a wild turkey in your neck of the woods or not, here are some fun facts about these big birds:
- A male turkey is called a tom; a female is a hen. Young turkeys are poults, but the male is a jake and the female a jennie. A group of turkeys is called a rafter.
- The wild turkey’s bald head can change color when it’s excited. Red, pink, white, and blue are the most common colors seen.
- Turkeys have poor night vision but see 3 times better than a human in daytime.
- You can tell a wild turkey’s sex and age by its droppings – the male is j-shaped, and the female is spiral shaped. The larger in diameter the dropping, the older the bird is.
- Despite their girth, wild turkeys sleep high in the branches of trees.
As we settle in to fall, there is so much for birdwatchers to see out there. While people are beginning to retreat indoors, it’s the ideal time to get out and add more birds to your life list. What could be better than spotting a wild turkey in your own neck of the woods?