There are just some birds that make me think “dinosaur” when I see them. A great blue heron flies by and the image of an Archeopteryx springs to mind. Wild turkeys, with their featherless heads, scaly legs and feet running across a field, make me think of plant-eating dinosaurs running across the plains away from a carnivorous predator.
In fact, fossil records show that turkeys date back five million years in the U.S. and Mexico, which is not dinosaur old, but it’s an impressive amount of time to survive on earth.
Of course, there was that time in the early 1900s that loss of habitat and over-hunting eliminated turkeys in Rhode Island and most of the U.S. This extinction lasted until the 1980s, when biologists began reintroducing them in Rhode Island, and now their populations seem to be doing pretty well.
Dr. Charles Clarkson, lead researcher for the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, confirmed that turkeys are nesting around the state, including in Newport, Portsmouth, and most likely Middletown. However, they have not been confirmed to be breeding on Conanicut Island, just yet.
Turkeys are imbedded in the psyche and traditions of New Englanders. There may not have been turkeys living in the wild when I was growing up, but the first time I saw them in the 1980s, I knew exactly what I was looking at. Now, I see turkeys every day at the Audubon Nature Center in Bristol, and they still fascinate me with their beauty, predictable habits and funny antics.
Pulling into the parking lot to see seven males perched on the fence preening in the sunshine is a wonderful way to start my day.
Wild turkeys are big birds, four feet long, weighing between five and 25 pounds, with a wingspan of four to five feet. A breeding male is something to behold with his iridescent bronze plumage and his magnificent tail that he fans and flashes to attract attention.
They also have a snood, wattle and beard. Humans can have beards, but can we boast about our snood and wattle? The snood is the flap of skin that hangs from the forehead over the beak, and the wattle is the bright red, fleshy, bumpy skin on the neck. Their beard is a clump of bristle-like feathers hanging from the chest. The snood seems to be part of a male turkey’s allure, while the wattle is decorative as well, but also helps to release heat on a hot day.
It is great fun to watch male turkeys, toms or gobblers put on a show for the female hens in the spring. There is the fanning of the tail, the lowering of the wings, the slow turning of the body to show all his best features and the various amorous gobbles and hums. I sometimes catch them practicing in front of the glass doors of the nature center, admiring themselves in the reflection. The alpha males will mate with several females before going off to hang out with the other males, leaving the hens to do the nesting and rearing of the young or poults.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has a citizen science project to document wild turkey broods that you can participate in next summer. When you come across a flock of hens and poults, you can go to the website and put in the date, location, and numbers of females, males and poults. All this information helps the agency protect and manage the species.
Turkeys walk and run a lot, but they can also fly and often roost in trees at night. This is a good place to be when coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, great horned owls and humans are your predators. I read recently that turkeys can also swim, if necessary, which would be a sight to see and perhaps one way they will find their way to Jamestown.
Turkeys primarily eat plant material, like seeds, berries, and buds, with an occasional insect or two thrown in for good measure. They tend to live in open forests where acorns, beech nuts and other tree seeds can be found, but are also seen on farmland and now in suburbia. They will come to bird feeders and never turn their snood up at a handout, so be careful not to create nuisance turkeys.
There are times when alpha male turkeys will be aggressive, especially during breeding season, so admire them from a distance, and if they are a problem, be big and loud, clapping your hands, banging pots or spraying them with a hose.
Years ago, when I worked at the bird sanctuary, I got a desperate call from a neighbor about a flock of turkeys that would not get out of the road. The snowbanks were several feet high and the turkeys would not move. Thinking I knew how to handle a stubborn bunch of feathered rascals, I got out of my car and clapped and yelled to absolutely no avail. It took the giant, yet gentle pressure of the town snowplow to convince that flock to climb the snowbanks and be on their way.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Nature lover Lauren Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.