Turkeys everywhere

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115031763917618.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Turkeys, both wild and domestic, are common sights in the yards of residents of the Rock River Valley.’);

The wooded area bisected by Pebble Creek in the rear of my house in the Gingerwood section of Loves Park is a haven for wildlife. The situation is somewhat unique in that the woods border directly on the heavily traveled and noisy Riverside Boulevard. Over the years, I have enjoyed observing the many species of birds that occupy this environmental niche as well as several species of mammals, including whitetail deer that make an occasional appearance.

In the last year or so, I have been delighted when turkeys, both wild and domestic, have meandered through my yard, stopping at the bird feeders to feed on seed that has fallen to the ground. Some of these birds are of the wild subspecies, and some are of the domestic variety. The tips of the tail feathers in a wild turkey are brown, whereas the tips of these feathers in the domestic turkey are white. Some of these magnificent birds are so bold they frequently wander away from the protection of the wooded area and roam about front yards, frequently crossing the busy street known as Tumbleweed Trail.

The turkey has long been an important part of the American way of life, yet the name of this curious bird has undergone a strange evolution. When Cortez and his conquistadores subdued the Aztecs in Mexico, they discovered the natives had domesticated an interesting fowl, the males of which strutted about in a pompous fashion and made peculiar gobbling sounds.

The Spaniards returned some of these birds to Europe, this providing the world with an asset far greater than the other treasures they secured. When this New World fowl first met the Europeans, they confused it with another import, which it resembled, from Africa, the guinea bird. In parts of Europe the guinea was called the turkey because some of the domesticated birds had been imported from that country. From this confusion, the bird from Mexico usurped the name from its African cousin and became known as the turkey. We have a bird today of New World origin with an inappropriate Old World name.

The turkey made its way to England and accompanied the colonists on the voyages to America, serving as food during the long time at sea and to be reared in the New World. At the time the originally Mexican bird arrived in America, the native Eastern wild turkey was common in the Eastern U.S. as far north as what is today the state of Maine. As far as we know, the native wild turkey was not domesticated by the colonists, and it was the Mexican turkey that went into their poultry yards.

The native wild subspecies abounded in the forests of New England, but they were hunted so relentlessly that they were virtually extinct in that area by 1850. They continued to thrive in the West, but as expansion began, great numbers of these noble birds fell to the fowling pieces of the pioneers. By 1900, the numbers of wild turkeys in all parts of its range were perilously low, but, with the advent of conservation laws and sound game management practices, the wild turkey held on and actually increased in numbers in many areas where previously they had been on the edge of extinction.

Because of habitat loss and unregulated hunting, wild turkeys were extirpated from Illinois in the early 1900s. However, these birds are very adaptable, and when restoration in our state was undertaken in 1959, the program was an immediate success. Wild turkey populations now exist in almost all of the 102 counties, and the hunting of them in season is permitted in 81 counties. Previously, game biologists thought that extensive tracts of forest were required for turkeys to exist, but now it is known that thriving populations exist in areas of the Midwest with less than 20 percent forest cover. Forest preserves in many Illinois counties have undoubtedly greatly aided the comeback of the wild turkey.

Almost everyone knows the story of how Benjamin Franklin lobbied long and hard for the designation of the wild turkey to be the national symbol of this country. He argued that the proposed bald eagle was unworthy of this honor as it made its living as a thief, frequently robbing other birds of their food. Despite Franklin’s considerable influence on the early politicians, the bald eagle won the designation. Perhaps if the premier Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey had been available in those days, Ben might have been able to convince his colleagues the wild turkey had other than avian attributes.

Anyone living in the Rock River Valley should not be at all surprised if some morning they look out their window and see turkeys scratching around in their back yard.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

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