Of course you know there is a vast difference between the turkey that hits your table on Thanksgiving Day and the wild turkey. What you might not be aware of is that turkeys are not native to the western states. Back in the days of the pilgrims these birds were abundant in the eastern forests. A truly American bird, they were found only on this continent until the 1600’s when the Spanish explorers took a few birds back to Spain where they bred and expanded. In fact this bird was so American that good old Ben Franklin proposed it be chosen as the national bird and symbol of our country instead of the eagle. Time and extensive hunting practically wiped out the species until massive conservation efforts were put in place. Thanks to transplantation, wild turkeys are now in all the states except Alaska.
These are the largest game birds in North America. They stand about four feet tall and can reach up to 24 pounds. There are gobblers or Toms, hens, Jakes (first year males) and Jennys (first year females). Gobblers are adult males that have bronzy, iridescent body plumage with black tipped breast feathers. Another characteristic of males is the “beard” that protrudes from the breast. They also have an upward curving spur on the lower legs. Gobblers have less head feathers than hens. Hens are smaller birds with light-brown breast feather tips. Hens sometimes develop beards too but they are always smaller and thinner than a gobbler’s.
There are five races or sub-species of wild turkeys in the United States. Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Gould’s, and Merriam’s. Merriam’s turkeys are the ones you will see in California. They are distinguished from the others by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail margin.
Adult males have a distinctive mating call – “gobble, gobble.” The head of the aroused gobbler becomes a combination of red, white and blue – pretty patriotic when you think about it.
Male turkeys have other interesting characteristics such as the Snood or Dewbill, a drooping apparatus that hangs down over the beak, and the wattle, a bright red loose bunch of skin hanging from under the beak to just above the beard. Apparently the only function of these items is to cause hens to swoon. A male turkey can change his head from red to blue in minutes and the climax of his performance is when he fans out his tail and puffs up his body feathers to appear huge and round. This just about clinches it for the lady turkeys. Lovemaking is bound to ensue!
Eight to 12 eggs are laid and begin hatching in 28 days. The young are capable of leaving the nest soon after hatching.
Wild turkeys form into flocks based on sex and age. The brood (hen and her poults) forms into hen-brood flocks. Adult males form flocks that rarely associate with hens until breeding season. Young males separate from the brood and form Jake flocks.
Domestic turkeys couldn’t be more different from their wild cousins. They are larger (can weigh up to 75 lbs.) and gain weight quickly. This is not due to hormones or drugs but is a factor of breeding. Domestics are white in color and cannot change their head color. Their snoods are always red. And poor beasts, they are unable to breed, a consequence of having developed over-sized barrel chests that don’t allow the birds to get close enough to mate. Artificial insemination produces all the domestic turkey flocks. Did you know there are two types of domestic turkey – the female line consists of males and females, whose job it is to produce eggs, and the male line, also made up of males and females that are bred to produce meat.
Dumbness is equated with being a turkey but this is only true for the domestic variety. Wild birds are very wily and wary. Ask any hunter. The domestics are so passive they don’t even know enough to come in out of the rain and there are documented cases of turkeys drowning in a downpour.
The biggest difference between domestic and wild birds is that only the wild ones can fly. They don’t much like to but they can, quite well. They can clear a 60-foot tree within 100 feet of takeoff and travel several miles at 50 miles per hour.
The turkey is a successful bird in every sense both in the wild and in the supermarket. Nowadays most of the products on the store shelves are made of turkey – turkey ham, turkey bacon, and turkey pastrami.
So on Thanksgiving Day while you are enjoying that turkey leg or breast, remember the great contribution this very American bird brings to us -- food for our table and a pleasure to watch in the wild.
Turkeys have made a big comeback in California and are seen far and wide on farms and ranches and sometimes even in town!