Wild Turkey symbol of New World spirit

9:16 am | November 21, 2011

It’s time to once again come together and celebrate Thanksgiving, so I thought I’d focus this week’s column on the Wild Turkey.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - A flock of Wild Turkeys foraging in a yard in Hampton.

I saw a flock of about two dozen Wild Turkeys back in October while traveling through Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. There are other locations that are dependable year after year for turkey sightings. Some of these places to look for Wild Turkeys include the fields near Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County and the woodland clearings around Wilbur Lake in Carter County.

Surprisingly, the Wild Turkey, now a rather abundant bird across much of North America, almost didn’t survive the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the Wild Turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet.

In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets almost drove the Wild Turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.

Ironically, the Wild Turkey’s valued status as a gamebird helped persuade many Americans to fight for its conservation. It’s an effort that succeeded admirably. Today, there are almost six million Wild Turkeys roaming North America. The Wild Turkey is now abundant enough to be legally hunted in most states, including Tennessee.

The Wild Turkey is a large bird. Males, or tom turkeys, can reach a length of 46 inches, weigh 16 pounds and boast a wingspan of 60 inches. The Wild Turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

The female turkey, or hen, nests, incubates eggs and rears young without any help from her mate. The hen may lay as many as a dozen eggs. The clutch usually hatches within a month. Newly-hatched turkeys are known as poults. The poults are capable of finding their own food after leaving the nest, which they do within 12 hours of hatching. They are supervised, however, by the hen. Wild Turkeys require a mixture of woodlands with clearings and fields to thrive. They roost in trees at night, but feed in more open habitats.

The Wild Turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe.

The Wild Turkey has only one close relative, the Ocellated Turkey, or Meleagris ocellata. The Ocellated Turkey ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles while the Wild Turkey ranges throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Tail feathers in both sexes are bluish-gray in color with a well defined, eye-shaped, blue-bronze colored spot near the end followed by a bright gold tip. These “eyespots” in the feathers provide the basis for the use of the term “ocellated” in this fowl’s common name. The tail feather spots are reminiscent of those seen in peacock feathers.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the Wild Turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States.

Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”

George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the Bald Eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater.

If not as our national symbol, the Wild Turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor.

Here’s some additional turkey trivia:

• The Aztecs first domesticated the Wild Turkey. The Spaniards brought this tamed fowl back to Europe with them in the mid-16th century and from Spain, domestic turkeys spread to France and later Britain as a farmyard animal.

• At Thanksgiving, humans consume many turkeys. In the wild, turkeys are preyed upon by coyotes, bobcats, cougars, Golden Eagles, Great Horned Owls and red foxes.

• Today, the Wild Turkey population stands at about 7 million.

• The feathers of turkeys were important in Native American cultures. Tribes as diverse as the Sioux, the Wampanoag, the Powhatan and the Hopi all wore turkey feathers or used feathers in their rituals.

• There are six sub-species of the Wild Turkey: Eastern, Florida, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s and South Mexican.

• Turkeys belong to an order of birds known as the galliformes, which includes grouse, ptarmigans, pheasants, quail, partridges and chickens.

• The Wild Turkey is the largest of North America’s game birds. The largest Wild Turkey on record weighed 37 pounds, but a domestic turkey holds the record, tipping the scales at 86 pounds.


I also saw Wild Turkeys during my recent travels, including flocks in both North Carolina and South Carolina. It’s actually the first time I have observed Wild Turkeys in South Carolina, so it was a good find for me. I will continue to share more about the birds encountered during my recent South Carolina trip in upcoming columns.


To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send e-mail to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@ starhq.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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