Did you know that Benjamin Franklin nominated the turkey to be the national bird for the United States of America?
And that President Abraham Lincoln started the tradition of a White House pardon for a turkey on Thanksgiving – the impetus? His son Tad made friends with the turkey that was to be on the Thanksgiving menu (later named Jack!)
The domestic turkey we are familiar with is descended from a subspecies that is now extinct. There are five subspecies of the wild turkey: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande (shown below), Merriam’s and Gould’s.
|Wild Turkey at HNWR, by Jim Gay|
The wild turkeys at Hagerman NWR are Rio Grande (named for the general area in which they are found –the central plains states) and there are a number of flocks at the Refuge. But, this has not always been the case. By the late 1800’s, turkeys throughout Texas had been hunted to very low numbers. Then hunters stepped in to support conservation and restoration, and now thanks to individuals, to legislation and to organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, hunting regulations and better habitat management practices have allowed turkey populations to steadily increase in most areas. Now more than seven million wild turkeys roam America’s woodlands.
Several flocks of 100+ turkeys use habitat on and adjacent to the Refuge including brushy areas next to streams and the lake, or mixed oak forests near the creeks. At Hagerman, turkeys are sometimes visible along field edges or roadsides with trees and like to forage for insects and seeds in wooded areas.
An adult female turkey is called a hen. Hens generally weigh between 8 and 11 pounds. Female turkeys less than one year old are called a jenny. Like many other birds, the females’ feathers are more subdued in color than the males’, allowing them to better blend in with their surroundings.
Female turkeys weigh about 10 pounds while males tip the scales at closer to 20. An adult male turkey is called a gobbler. The name comes from the sound they make in spring, to attract the hens during the mating season. Their iridescent feathers have a green-coppery sheen to them with the tips of the tail and lower back feathers being light tan. Male turkeys are known for their “beards” which are actually bristly tassels rather than feathers and grow for life instead of molting. A male under one year in age is called a jake.
Wild turkeys can run or fly. They can run up to 19 mph for short distances. They usually fly only short distances but at speeds of up to 55 mph. They prefer the borders between woodlands and field, which provide low cover for nesting, trees for roosting and for their food source. Wild turkeys prefer to nest in grass or brush at least 18 inches tall and usually lay 10-11 eggs that hatch in 28 days. The young turkeys (poults) are up and running behind the hen within the first 24 hours. Generally ground dwellers, there is a high mortality rate on poults by critters including bobcats, foxes, snakes, raccoons, and hogs, so safe night roosting sites are critical to turkey survival. Turkeys typically seek trees that are 40 feet or taller and tend to roost in groups.
Young turkeys favor insects for their diet. As they mature, mast such as acorns, pecans and berries, along with various seeds and grains, becomes the primary diet for the wild turkey.
Although you may see turkeys any time of year, spring is an especially good time to look for these unique birds. Males can often be seen strutting around and fanning their tail feathers in hopes of impressing the ladies. When you visit Hagerman, keep an eye out for signs of wild turkeys by looking for scratching in the dirt or leaves, spotting their large three-toed foot print, or listen for gobbling sounds coming from the woods.
Wild turkeys are not migratory and often live out their life span within five miles of their hatching site.
Happy Turkey Day!
Material in this post has been combined from previously published posts, "Let's Talk Turkey", by Refuge Manager Kathy Whaley (11-24-2009) and "Turkey Facts from the National Wild Turkey Federation", (11-23-11).