Birder's Journal: Giving Thanks for Wild Turkey Sightings

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
November 27, 2002
While most people at this time of year think about eating turkey, I
think about seeing one—not the overweight, pale, domesticated bird
that ends up on the Thanksgiving table, but rather its streamlined,
bronzy ancestor: the wild turkey.

This ground-dwelling native of North American forests is fairly common now, but only 30 years ago it was nonexistent across much of its historic range, a casualty of overhunting and deforestation.

English naturalist John Josselyn was one of the first to note the turkey's decline. In 1672, after an extended visit to Maine, he wrote: "The English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that 'tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the woods."

The estimated 10 million turkeys that roamed North America before European settlement dwindled to a fragmented population of 30,000 by the early 1900s. They had been extirpated from 18 of 39 states they originally inhabited.

I glimpsed my first wild turkeys in the late 1970s at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, but it took another decade for me to find them in my home woods of Fairfield County, Connecticut. By then, reintroduction programs in New England and elsewhere were proving successful.

Members of remnant populations had been captured in rocket-propelled nets and moved to forested regions where no wild turkeys had been seen for a century or more. Sustained by good habitat—extensive, open woods with waterways and adjacent fields—and protected by hunting suspensions, many of the relocated birds thrived.

Wild turkeys now occur in all of the lower 48 states, and their number has risen to more than 5.5 million. To most observers, however, they remain elusive. Their predators include great horned owls, bobcats, cougars, coyotes, and foxes, so wariness is in their blood. Unleashed dogs take a heavy toll, and their return has put their worst enemy—human hunters—back on their trail.

Getting close to a wild turkey on foot, therefore, isn't easy. My first Connecticut turkeys—five males that crossed my path in a nature preserve—behaved typically. When they saw me, they strutted away, taking a hiking trail up a hill. I followed, trying repeatedly to get a good look, but they never allowed me more than a glimpse of their tails as they disappeared beyond the next bend.

Growing alarmed at my persistence, they peeled off the trail and ran down the other side of the hill, through some brush. Guided by their loud rustling, I tried to stay close behind, but my speed was no match for theirs, and I lost them along the border of a marsh.

Like most people, I've gotten some of my best looks at turkeys from behind the wheel of a car. Turkeys often forage in roadside fields or clearings, and they seem to view a car and its driver as one benign behemoth.

An exception was the female I met early one morning on a country road. She stood on the pavement with her brood, so I pulled alongside and urged her to move everyone to safety. In defense, she stood her ground and spread her wings, but to my relief, she soon led her young into the woods.

My cat had a similar encounter in the driveway. Hollow knocks brought me to the door—the clucking of a female turkey. She and the cat were in a staring match, and it was the cat who blinked and withdrew.

The cat tried to be nonchalant, but I think she was shaken, which made me suspect she had never seen the likes of a wild turkey. I knew one thing: She wasn't about to disturb the eight crow-size poults that lurked in the leaf litter behind their protective mother.

There was no adult male in sight, because the female assumes all the duties of nesting; the male's reproductive role begins with courtship and ends with mating. The female and young stay together through winter, often joining other broods to form large flocks.

Adult males mix with these winter flocks, travel alone, or gather in their own groups. A winter flock might have 100 members, but in Connecticut flocks of 10 to 20 are typical.

The largest winter flock I've come across numbered 25 and included adult females, four or five adult males, and smaller birds that must have been born the previous summer. On a mild afternoon in early December, I had reached the midpoint of a trail through second-growth deciduous woods, and after crossing a stream, heard an alarm call.

I froze and saw a few turkeys heading away, up a hill. More foraged farther up, and others to the right were threading their way through shrubs and boulders. Spread out across the hillside, the flock moved slowly to the left, noisily raking their feet through the leaves.

When raking, the birds stood in place and pulled their feet back, the way we clean our shoes on a welcome mat. As they pecked the exposed ground for food—probably acorns and hardy insects—some ruffled their feathers, showing their salt-and-pepper primaries and secondaries.

My approach drove half the flock over the crest of the hill; the rest went over a stone wall to the left. Suddenly, I was alone on the hillside, and all was quiet. An eerie peacefulness pervaded the scene—had they really been here, these feathered dinosaurs?

The proof was all around: dozens of bare circles of earth rimmed with leaves, a swath covering the full breadth of the hillside, bordered by a stone wall to the west, a road to the east. It was, I thought, an avian Stonehenge, and I had seen its creators at work.

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