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Wildlife Wonders

Today is Turkey Day!

Benjamin Franklin wrote that a turkey was “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America”, “a bird of courage”.  This was in comparison to the eagle – “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get a living honestly because it steals food from the fishing hawk” and is “too lazy to fish for himself”.  This may be true.  Fact is Franklin’s private letter was written in 1784 to his daughter about an entirely different seal.  Myth buster: He never proposed the turkey as a symbol for America. He proposed a biblical scene in 1776 and that was tabled until the eagle was adopted in 1782 as the centerpiece of the Great Seal of the United States.

Now that we dispelled that myth let’s move on to the infamous turkey known the world over because it often seen on the dinner table at Thanksgiving – although that usually is the “domesticated” turkey, taken from the wild, placed in a human environment and used by humans.

The wild turkey, Mellagris gallopavo, lives in forests, fields, orchards and wooded backyards.  As they scratch amongst the leaf litter they find nuts, berries, and insects to eat.  At night they roost in trees.  In order to get up in the trees they fly…a surprise to many.  Unlike one of their predators – the great horned owl – they are not “silent fliers” .  They take flight with loud, labored wing beats.  Turkeys have been clocked at flying 40-55 mph and running at 25 mph!  According to The Cornell Lab, when they need to they can even swim by tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails and kicking…another sight that would be fun to see!

This is pretty amazing for a bird that weighs up to 12 lbs. for females and 25 lbs. for males, heights of 36″ to 48″ respectively and wingspans of 49-57 inches. 

Turkeys have been around for a long time.  Turkey fossils have been unearthed dating back more than 5 million years ago.  In current history, or sort of, in the 1500’s Europeans brought wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico.  Supposedly they were named “turkeys” because they were brought through Turkey on the way to European markets.  When English colonists came to the Atlantic coast they brought turkeys here, only to find turkeys already here.  Turkeys were abundant then, but were reduced by hunting and farming.  By 1811 wild turkeys were no longer found in Connecticut.  For many years they tried to reintroduce turkeys.  It was not until 1975, when 22 wild trapped turkeys from New York State were introduced to northwestern CT.  Then the population began to increase.  Wildlife biologist continued their efforts and between 1975 and 1992, 356 wild turkeys were released in 18 sites across the state.  Today there are estimates of between 18,000 to 25,000 wild turkeys in CT.  A true success story!  Across North America there are about 7 million turkeys.

How to spot a turkey? Not hard if you are in the right habitat or sometimes even if you are just driving along the highway.  Male turkeys (tom or gobbler) are easier to see, although females (hen) and their broods (poults – young females, jennies and young males, jakes) band in larger groups – in the summer up to 20, but in the winter you can find up to 200 together!  Male turkey, especially in breeding season, have a brightly colored red, white (or gray) and blue head.  Their bodies are iridescent green and their wings are dark and boldly barred with white.  During courtship males puff up their body feathers, fan out their large tails, strut slowly and gobble…quite the ritual!  The male’s brightly colored red “snood”, a long flap of skin over the beak, is said to indicate male health. A male with a longer snood is healthier and females prefer them.  It has also been used to predict who will win a competition among males. 

Males and females also have a “wattle”, a flap of skin underneath the head.  Toms have long spurs on their legs and hairlike beards that are uncommon in females.

How to tell a male from a female turkey?  Look at their feces (aka scat).  A female’s is “J” shaped and a males is spiral shaped. 

I leave you with a song adapted by Growing Up WILD: Exploring Nature with Young Children from

Five Wild Turkeys are We

(listen to a YouTube video…be warned it will get stuck in your brain!)

Five Wild Turkeys are we-e.

We slept all night in a tree-e.

When the hunter came around, (in the poem it is a cook)

One couldn’t be found.

That’s why we’re here you see!

Four Wild Turkeys are we,

We slept all night in a tree.

When the coyote came around,

One couldn’t be found.

That’s why we’re here you see!

3) horned owl

2) bobcat

1) eagle

Five wild turkey are we.

We slept all night in a tree.

When the predators came around,

We didn’t make a sound.

That’s why we’re here you see!

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