Bud’s View: Wild about turkey in Penn’s Woods
This is a great time of the year for talking turkey since the holiday season’s main food staple on most family dinner tables is turkey. In today’s fast-paced world, unlike the early settlers, very few of these gatherings will be dining on wild turkey.
We’ve had wild turkey as our main menu entrée several times and there has been nothing to indicate a wild turkey tastes different than one purchased at the local supermarket. We knew it was wild turkey because I shot them, field-dressed them and prepared them for the chef. Bev is a great cook. She added the finishing touches for a delicious meal.
There seems to be plenty of misinformation about wild turkeys and their natural history. They are often stereotyped as dim-witted, slow-moving clumsy birds that cannot fly. The wild turkey actually has sharp hearing and eyesight, an instinctive gift to cleverly hide from predators, the ability to reach flying speeds of 40 to 50 mph during flights often covering more than one mile and they swim. Despite being swift flyers, they usually flee from danger on foot reaching speeds of up to 18 mph.
Wild turkeys roost in trees. I’ve seen flocks near dusk slowly feeding and working their way toward the top of a steep hill where I archery hunt. When they reach the hilltop, they fly to their treetop roosts of trees that grow at the base of the hillside. In this way they expend much less energy flying parallel from the top of the hill to the tree tops. Dim-witted birds? I don’t think so.
Local wild turkeys are similar to the domestic ones, but are more slender birds. North American turkeys belong to a single but highly variable species, Meleagris gallopavo. Most taxonomists recognize at least five sub-species. The Pennsylvania turkey is simply referred to as the eastern wild turkey. All domestic turkey breeds were developed from the wild turkey. The Aztec Indians of Mexico were the first group to tame and raise turkeys. Wild turkeys are native to North America.
The average male turkey, called a tom or gobbler, stands about three feet tall, stretching about three to four feet from beak to tail. Females, called hens, are about one-third shorter and weigh about half as much as the males. Toms average about 16 to 18 pounds while the hens weigh about 10 pounds. Toms may occasionally reach a weight of 25 pounds or more. Unlike its farm-bred cousins, it is not being raised and fattened for market. Can you say organic? The wild turkey prefers open woodlands and mature forests. They do not migrate, but travel in search of available food. In the summer, turkeys feed on snails, insects and have a strong preference for grasshoppers. Turkeys eat a variety of new spring vegetation including green plant shoots. In the fall and winter they rely on dry berries, fruits, acorns and other nuts.
Wild turkeys tend to travel in flocks. In spring, the males perform courtship displays. They puff out their body feathers and chests, fan their tails and slowly strut around voicing the familiar turkey gobbling sounds, all with the anticipation of attracting as many hens as possible. If you’ve watched the dancers performing their fancy feathered routines during the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, you’ve witnessed the strutting techniques of male turkeys.
Mating takes place in spring. Nests are simple leaf-lined depressions on the ground. The hen usually lays one egg each day until she has laid an average of nine to 15 creamy colored eggs speckled with reddish-brown and black spots. She does not begin incubating until all the eggs are laid. In this way, the eggs will hatch at about the same time. The egg colors, similar to most ground nesting birds, help to camouflage the eggs and nest.
We had a nesting hen in a weedy area between the neighbor’s and our properties. There were 11 eggs. We kept watch and one day momma hen was gone. Eight eggs had hatched. A hen with eight smaller turkeys following was recently seen near the back of our yards. We assume (hope) it was the spring nester and her brood. Turkeys spend their nights roosting on sturdy branches near the tops of tall trees. We’ve had roosting turkeys in our trees. Nesting hens, however, stay on their nests at night during the nesting season. Incubation lasts about 28 days. The hatchlings, called poults, are precocial (they are born covered with fine feathers, their eyes are open eyes and they can move about shortly after hatching). The poults are able to walk and feed on their own within 24 hours.
Wild turkey populations have made great comebacks across Penn’s Woods. Turkey populations were very low because of market hunting and loss of forest habitat as the country was settled and expanded westward. The Pennsylvania Game Commission began experimenting with raising and releasing turkeys in the wild. The results of this method were poor. The pen-raised birds were too tame, didn’t roost in trees and did not adapt to the natural environment. They provided predators like large raptors, foxes and coyotes with an easy meal. Trapping and transferring wild birds proved to be very successful, thus increasing wild turkey numbers. Today, the wild turkey is a self-sustaining game bird species found in all 67 counties of the Keystone State.
I hope you enjoy a few slices of a delicious Meleagris gallopavo and all the fixings with your loved ones this holiday season.
That’s the way I see it.
Note: I’m still accepting pet stories for a future column.
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