Wilderness Underfoot: The Wild Turkey

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116664316524803.jpg’, ”, ‘The wild turkey – Meleagris gallopavo is native to Eastern North America. Because it survives on food foraged on the ground, it is not as common north of the Great Lakes, where heavy snowfall can cover the soil for weeks and months at a time.’);

After turkey populations were wiped out, conservation programs restored this bird in much of its native North American habitat.

The wild turkey was an important food for Native Americans for well more than 1,000 years, but by the late 1800s, it had nearly been eliminated as a result of over-hunting and loss of habitat.

Thanks to protected wilderness areas and conservation programs, this bird has been restored to much of its native territory. Interestingly, turkeys raised on game farms weren’t successful when reintroduced into the wilderness. Instead, conservationists caught wild turkeys and reintroduced them into locations where they had been wiped out. Turkeys are now doing quite well.

These birds prefer living on the edges of woodlands and in woody meadows. They belong to the order Galliformes, which also includes grouse, quails, partridges and pheasants. As is typical of most Galliformes, turkeys are non-migratory ground birds. They spend most of their lives on foot, keeping to a range of a few thousand acres or less. They nest on the ground—usually under trees—and they roost in the trees at night.

Most of their food is found on the ground: nuts and seeds, berries, roots, insects and even small animals. They’re quite omnivorous. But when the ground is snow-covered, they’re often forced to wait for weeks at a time for a melt, and during extreme winter weather, they can lose up to 40 percent of their weight. After a snowfall they can sometimes be found foraging on southern slopes, where the sun has melted the snow.

The males are somewhat larger and more colorful than the females. Male breast feathers have darker tips, and they have a “beard” in the center of their breasts. Of course, they also have their distinctive wattles. These birds aren’t easily mistaken for other birds in our region!

Although you might not expect it from such a bulky, oddly-shaped bird, the turkey is an unexpectedly fast flier, capable of reaching speeds of 50 miles per hour. It is rarely seen in flight, however, and when it is in the sky, it flies low and for short distances only.

Wild turkeys aren’t nearly as large or plump as the domesticated turkeys that are raised for your holiday dinner, but compared to other native birds, they’re rather large. A wild turkey averages about 18 pounds as an adult, and it can reach 24 pounds; the domesticated birds reach 30 pounds within a year and a half, and the largest on record was a chunky 86 pounds!

From the Dec. 20-26, 2006, issue

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