Maybe it is because of the abundant acorns and viburnum berries or the loss of foliage cover as the leaves senesce or the sound of hunters’ footsteps but, for whatever reason, there have been an increase number of wild turkeys traipsing through the yard. They have been traveling in groups of 2 or 3 brown feathered hens accompanied by this year’s offspring. The yard is bordered on 2 sides by woods so the turkeys come out, check out the gardens, bird feeder and brushy areas and then return to the forest.
While it might be common to see the eastern wild turkey these days, it certainly was not so 200 years ago in Connecticut. Once wild turkeys ranged from Canada down to Florida and across to South Dakota down to Arizona and into Mexico. There are only two wild turkey species Meleagris gallopavo and M. ocellata with the latter found only in parts of Central America. There are 6 distinct subspecies of M. gallopova with the eastern wild turkey (M. g. silvestris) being one. Eastern wild turkeys were plentiful when the first settlers arrived. Probably a combination of overhunting and land clearing made them a rare sight by the early 1800s.
Restoration efforts began in the 1950s and 60s with artificial propagation techniques which were largely unsuccessful. Much better results were met with live capture and relocation. 356 eastern wild turkeys were released on 18 sites in Connecticut from 1975 to 1992 according to CT DEEP. Now they can be found in all Connecticut towns. Recent land use practices have also enhanced turkey habitat favoring their population growth.
Wild turkeys are quite the sight. Adult females reach about 3 feet in height with majestic males topping them at 4 feet. The males have a most striking red and/or blue head with a white crown and red throat wattle called a dewlap and wart-like growths called caruncles. These color up more during mating season. Males also have a ‘beard’ which is a line of feathers in the middle of their chests which maybe become erect during breeding times and spurs on their legs. Females tend to be brownish in color with lighter chests. Females also usually have a more feathered, bluish-gray head. The differences between the sexes are most striking when a pair is seen together.
Unlike many bird species, eastern wild turkeys are not monogamous. In fact both the male and female may breed with several individuals. Male turkeys do not defend territory but rather develop a hierarchy or ‘pecking order’ and may fight among each other to determine their status. It’s quite the show to watch the males strutting and showing off their feathers during mating season which usually peaks around late April through early May.
Once mating occurs, the female is on her own. Males take no part in nesting, brooding or raising the young. Female turkeys will make a shallow depression in a sheltered area and begin to lay from 8 to 14 eggs. After the last egg is laid, a 28 day incubation begins. Hatching success is typically pretty high; somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the eggs hatch. Unfortunately, between 53 and 76 percent of the poults (young chicks) die within the first two weeks. The list of predators is long and includes snakes, raccoons, coyotes, fishers, bobcats, owls and hawks. Weather, food sources and human activities also impact wild turkey populations. As the young mature, the males are known as ‘jakes’ and the females as ‘jennies’.
Like ducklings, eastern wild turkeys are ‘precocial’ meaning they are born covered in a downy plumage, with open eyes and the ability to respond and follow mom within 24 hours of birth. It is essential that they imprint on the hen within those 24 hours for normal social and survival skills.
Eastern wild turkeys are not picky eaters. They feed on a variety of nuts and berries, green vegetation, seeds, roots and tubers, agricultural crops, fruits, buds and small invertebrates. The young consume a large proportion of insects compared to the adults. Occasionally I find a few turkeys gobbling up strawberries but mostly they leave the garden alone.
Ideal habitat for wild turkeys in a mix of hardwood/evergreen forests with grassy openings. Birds do not typically fly much except when alarmed but will roost in trees at night.
Most likely turkey was on the menu that first Thanksgiving in 1621. Colonists and Native Americans celebrating a bountiful harvest partook of several fowl species as well as venison, fish and vegetables from their gardens according to past records.
As far as the claim that Benjamin Franklin wanted the eastern wild turkey to be the National Emblem, there is a bit of truth to that. In 1784, he expressed unhappiness at a veteran organization’s choice of the bald eagle as their symbol and wrote that…”the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” He did not especially endorse the turkey but his writing seemed to indicate that the symbol should be more uniquely American.
Where the name ‘turkey’ came from is not clear. During the Middle Ages, many exotic items were referred to as turkey including pea-fowl from the Orient. That term persisted through Europe when referring to several species of poultry. It could also have arrived from the ‘turk, turk’ call of the bird or even a Jewish translation.
Wherever the name came from, eastern wild turkeys are welcome visitors to many Connecticut backyards. Enjoy their stature and antics and if possible try to plant native trees and shrubs to provide them with food and shelter.