2015-11-19 / Nature

Omnivorous Wild Turkeys

By Jack Kelly

Two juvenile females, known as jennies, feed on grass. Two juvenile females, known as jennies, feed on grass. Most of us received our first lessons about Thanksgiving and wild turkeys in early school grades in one of the rites of passage in our young lives. We all probably used colored construction paper and an outline of our small hands to create that first turkey art project. Teachers took the time to explain the first Thanksgiving and the relationship between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the indigenous Native American people known as the Wampanoags.

The wild turkey was a staple of the local diet and was plentiful in the forests and brushy habitats of southern New England. Native Americans across North America held the wild turkey in esteemn due to its place in their diets and beliefs. Prominent Wampanoags wore turkey feather cloaks as a sign of their place in the tribe.

Aquidneck Island holds a fairly healthy and stable population of wild turkeys, and flocks may be found from Newport to Portsmouth. This large bird has a colorful and frightening history of survival. Due to deforestation and other habitat loss, coupled with over-hunting, this species faced extinction by the 1930s, when it was estimated that only 30,000 members of this once highly populous breed remained in North America. Conservation efforts and limits on hunting resulted in a recovery through the early 1970s when the population had grown to an estimated 1.5 million birds.

The National Wildlife Federation, in partnership with the Wild Turkey Federation, continued efforts to restore the historic range of this species. Today, it is estimated that over 7 million wild turkeys are present across the continental United States, while Alaska and Hawaii do not have native populations.

Wild turkeys exhibit sexual dimorphism in plumage and body size. Adult males, known as toms, are approximately twice the size of adult females, standing at an average of about four feet, and depending on age, weighing over 20 pounds. Adult females, known as hens, stand nearly three feet tall and, depending on age, weigh 5-11 pounds. The largest wild turkey weighed to date tipped the scales at 37.1 pounds. Toms weighing 30 pounds or more are uncommon, but not rare.

A flock of turkeys forages at dawn in Portsmouth. A flock of turkeys forages at dawn in Portsmouth. Adult males display plumage of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence in their feathers, while females are duller overall in shades of grey and brown. Turkeys have between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers. Males also display a “beard,” a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers), which grows as the bird ages.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous and their diets consist of grass, grains, insects, berries and small reptiles. The birds forage in open brushy habitats, forests and farm fields after harvest. They are remarkably adaptable in this respect.

Toms mate with as many hens as possible. Females lay an average clutch of 10-12 eggs over a two-week period at the rate of one egg per day, in a shallow, grasslined depression on the ground. Turkey young, now known as poults, hatch precocial and join their mothers in foraging within 24 hours of hatching. As the poults mature, juvenile males are known as jakes and juvenile females are known as jennies. Wild turkeys roost in trees at night for protection and feed at dawn and in late afternoon hours. Males have little to do with raising their young, but do protect nesting areas.

Through years of scientific research, biologists believe that the wild turkey is a product of 45 million years of evolutionary progress and may have descended from a dinosaur raptor species. Anyone who has inadvertently stumbled upon a turkey nesting area and come under vicious attack by a group of angry, territorial, and protective males may find this fact interesting! Toms will use their sharp bills, strong wings, and lower leg spurs to fend off humans and other predators. They are capable of running at speeds of up to 25 mph, and can fly at about 55 mph for about one quarter mile. They pursue their targets of aggression with great tenacity for hundreds of feet.

The wild turkey is a living testament to the strength of its breed and the history of North America. However, it is best viewed from afar and respected for its size and protective nature.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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