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Wild Turkey

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a true, original native

Few animals are as closely tied to the American mythos than the wild turkey. Here is the bird of Thanksgiving fame, when the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest with the local Native Americans, passing on a tradition that continues to this day. And here is the bird that Benjamin Franklin proposed in a letter to his daughter as a more a fitting national symbol than the Bald Eagle, a bird of “bad moral character.” For old Ben the turkey was a “much more respectable Bird, and … a true original Native of America.” (Indeed, Ben developed a method to execute chickens and turkey using electricity because it made the flesh “uncommonly tender.” The man was scary.)

Wild turkeys are truly an all-American bird. They were originally residents of eastern North America, from Ontario to the Gulf Coast, as well as the modern-day American southwest and Mexico. But by the beginning of the 20th century the birds had been hunted almost to extinction. Due to extensive conservation efforts, the birds were not only restored to their former range, but have now been successfully introduced into every American state except Alaska. Interestingly, British settlers brought the bird with them when they colonized, not realizing they were simply bringing back to the Americas a bird that was already native to the continent. The English were raising a domestic bird descended from the wild subspecies of Mexico, brought to Europe by the Spanish. These descendents of the Mexican birds are distinguished from their wild kin by the white tips of their tail feathers, as the wild birds retain a light-brown tip.

While all turkeys, both wild and domestic, are of the same species, there are five sub-species. Four of these subspecies exist in the United States: the Merriam’s wild turkey of New Mexico and Arizona; the Rio Grande wild turkey of the southern plains states; the Osceola wild turkey of Florida; and most common of all, the Eastern wild turkey of the East Coast. In our region the introduced birds are Merriam’s, Rio Grandes, and Easterns; or probably more safe to say, hybrids of these three sub-species. They seem to all thrive in our area, which is great news for both birders and hunters. I’m glad that they’ve been introduced. 

    Few things are more delightful to see than tom turkeys all puffed up and in full display for the hens. They are remarkably colorful as the bare flesh of their heads and wattles become vivid hues of red and blue. They will fan their tales and spread their wings to their sides, making themselves appear as large and regal as possible. There are few displays in all of bird-dom that are as fun to watch. Talk about swagger!

Female turkeys, called hens, are much smaller than the males and, as is typical with most bird species, less vividly colored than the males. They also do not take part in any of those blustery displays, preferring to be the objects of the males’ attention. They are also the lone parent when it comes to raising the brood. The toms take no part in raising the kids.

There is little need to describe the physical characteristics of wild turkeys because they look like, well, turkeys. In fact, domestic turkeys are the same species as wild turkeys, but that doesn’t mean they are identical. There are many differences. First, domestic turkeys might come in different color schemes, such as all white. Second, domestic turkeys have been specially bred to be physical oddities, having oversized breasts and undersized brains. Last, domestic turkeys cannot fly, unlike their wild cousins. Wild turkeys fly very well, thank you.

And it is because they can fly that wild turkeys will roost in trees. Indeed, I’ve seen turkeys forty feet up in the pine trees. And it is quite entertaining to watch these same birds descend to the ground in the morning. Talk about on-the-edge, steep descent patterns. They come down quick and they come down sharply. Quite impressive in a sort of out-of-control way. 

Want a challenge? The next time you are out birding and stumble upon a flock of wild turkeys, don’t just simply check them off as a species on your life list. Try to determine which subspecies they are. How can you tell? You’ll have to do your own research to determine that. But I’d love to read your results. So have at it. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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A Bird in Hand, turkey

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