Picture walks: Wild turkeys

By Jeanne Church

Growing up in a densely populated suburb on the east side of the state, the only turkeys I ever saw were either in books or on the dining room table for Thanksgiving dinner! I now live in a condominium complex that’s surrounded by woods, water, and open fields; the perfect environment for a small flock of wild turkeys who now call our neighborhood home! Every time I see them strutting across the yard, or hear them gobbling on the far side of the creek, I have to smile. They’re such a novelty to me!

Wild turkeys are big, beautiful birds with a lot of weird body parts, like caruncles and snoods! Caruncles (pronounced ker-uncles) are all those fleshy little bumps covering their featherless heads and necks. The name itself is as weird as the bumps! Both male and female turkeys have caruncles, but sexually mature males have larger, more colorful ones which, during the mating season, are quite attractive to the females.

The snood is a fleshy appendage that hangs over the turkey’s beak. Both male and female turkeys have snoods, but only the male snood enlarges as it fills up with blood and turns red when he is trying to attract a mate. The longer the snood, the more desirable the male! Wild turkeys also have wattles, a flap of red skin that hangs down from their chin rather than over the beak like the snood. Males with large wattles have a much better chance of attracting a mate than their short-wattled brothers!

Turkeys also have what’s called a beard, but it’s not on their chin and it doesn’t really look much like a beard! It’s just a bunch of long, thin feathers growing out of their chest! All male turkeys have beards. The older they are the longer the beard. A small percentage of female turkeys also have beards, but scientists have no idea why.

Another prominent feature of the wild turkey is its beautiful and abundant plumage. Surprisingly, these birds can have anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 feathers! During the spring mating season, male turkeys will fluff up their copper-colored, iridescent feathers, fan out their magnificent tail feathers, and drag their wings along the ground in an attempt to advertise how big and beautiful and available they are!

Wild turkeys are huge! Adult males, called “toms,” can weigh as much as 25 pounds, which makes them the second heaviest North American bird after the trumpeter swan. Female turkeys, the “hens,” are about half that size. Despite their somewhat unwieldy appearance and their reputation for being ground dwellers, wild turkeys are powerful fliers and fast runners, albeit for very short distances! They usually run or take flight when startled or threatened and can reach a top speed of 25 mph on the ground or 55 mph in the air! To avoid predators, wild turkeys will fly up to the nearest tree. They also take shelter in the trees overnight. When evening comes, wild turkeys like to find a comfortable place to roost about 30 feet off the ground in the largest tree they can find.

In the morning, those roosting turkeys will return to the ground and start searching for food. Wild turkeys have been aptly described as “opportunistic omnivores” meaning they will readily eat whatever they can find whether it’s a plant or an animal! In the spring, they look for fresh buds, seeds, grains, grasses, and spilled birdseed under feeders. In the summer, they’ll add insects, berries, and small reptiles! Once the cooler weather sets in, the bulk of their diet will consist of nuts, fruits, and grains, with a particular preference for acorns!

Wild turkeys are not common backyard birds, but many birders who live near wooded areas and open fields, like I do, might find them foraging nearby or under their feeders. If you don’t live in this kind of setting, but want to find a flock of wild turkeys, it’s best to start out early in the morning or early in the evening when the turkeys are usually scavenging for food. The best place to look for them is in an open farm field or near a wooded lot that has an abundance of acorns!

Enjoy your search!

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