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Thanksgiving: It’s Wild Turkey Time

Wild turkeys are native to North America, and they are very large and heavy game birds. Likely, this is what made them so appealing for the first Thanksgiving in America. Today, most people know what wild turkeys looks like.

Wild turkeys have an iridescent bronze color on their bodies and barred wing feathers. The  tails of males make a beautiful fan with brownish feathers that have black and cream colored bands. Gobblers (males)sport a chest beard that gets longer with age. Their necks and head have an odd bluish color, as do their snood (the nose drapery) and the wattle (the chin skin).

Gobblers are generally the ones that do the open tail display (called a fan), although some hens display as well as grow beards. The Toms (male turkeys) gather in clearings in the woods and gobble to attract female hens. This gobble can be heard as far as a mile away. Gobblers also puff up and expel air in a hissing puff, while dragging their wingtips on the ground while engaging in a  strut. Their bluish head, snood and wattle change color to a bright red when they are excited.

The “turkey snood” drops down from a pointy horn-like extension above the bill to a draped lengthy skin over the bill. Gobblers activity is generally  irresistible to the hens. If you are near one, you can induce him to display by mimicking the female cluck or chirp.

Hens lay a clutch of 4-17 wild turkey eggs in a ground nest. These eggs hatch into baby wild turkeys, called poults. For the first four weeks of life, poults find and eat as many insects as possible. That protein helps they grow quickly. After that 4 months wild turkeys become omnivorous and eat eat plants, seeds and nuts. By the time they grow up, wild turkeys reach 3.5-4 feet in height and weight between 5.5 and 28 pounds. Their, wingspread is 4-4.75 feet.

In states where they have good populations Wild turkeys are a fairly common sight in the Fall when they are grazing in fields as well as cleaning up the corn and beans after harvest.

In the 1930s, though, they were close to extinction. The cause of their disappearance is generally thought to be over-hunting and habitat loss. It is also suggested that the disappearance of the American chestnut tree from blight also had a impact on wild turkeys, who ate large amounts of chestnuts from these bountiful trees.

Turkeys were reintroduced into many areas in the east and have thrived with increased conservation efforts an hunting limitations. Today, the National Wild Turkey Federation reports that there are 6.5 million turkeys in the wild.

In the wild, wild turkeys are very alert and wary, capable of disappearing into the trees without a sound. Wild turkeys are surprisingly fast and can run 18 miles an hour on foot and fly up to 50 miles per hour.

They roost at night in trees so they can avoid predators. Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, golden eagles and large owls enjoy a turkey dinner.

At Thanksgiving, many families dine on the wild turkey’s commercially-raised cousins. It is good to remember the wild bird that Ben Franklin suggested should be the mascot of the United States — the “bird of courage” — is the beautiful wild turkey.

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