By John Thaxton
On the way down to Elizabethtown for a Christmas Bird Count, I suddenly found myself slamming on my brakes really hard in order to avoid running over 15 or so wild turkeys wandering around aimlessly on Route 9N—they looked like a group of overly serious philosophers contemplating a profound existential enigma, slowly pacing higgledy-piggledy all over the road and completely ignoring my horn.
So I started to get out of the car to chase them away when I experienced the apocalyptically intense blast of an air horn immediately behind me, which stunned me and scattered the flock of turkeys immediately. In my rearview mirror I saw an ear-to-ear-smiling truck driver giving me a vigorous thumbs-up.
Severe hunting pressure had reduced the North American wild turkey population to near extinction levels, but a dramatic reintroduction of more than 200,000 has brought the population up to pre-hunting numbers.
Extremely polygamous, females and males both mate with multiple partners, with the males forming dominance polygamy with leks, and the females forming defense polygamy with harems. The males fight with other males and the females fight with other females, but when it comes time to go to sleep all the birds line up on a horizontal branch 10 feet up or higher and all ill will fades into the darkness.
Male turkeys perform a courtship display that looks like something straight out of vaudeville—they gobble with a metronomically fixed intensity as they strut with their tail fanned vertically; they lower their wings and five of their primaries drag along the ground. They raise the feathers on the back, project their bill forward and inflate their crop, and they perform a sort of gliding strut around a female as they make a series of chump and humm sounds. One study found that the decapitated head of a female turkey aroused copulatory displays by males, whereas they paid no attention whatever to the headless body.
Wild turkeys feed on a wide variety of plants and nuts, supplemented by invertebrates and cold-blooded vertebrates. When on their summer range flocks they frequently line up, with a hen in the center, and walk abreast through a field, searching carefully for grasshoppers.
Just before the hatch, poults start making peeping calls, which the hen responds to with yelps. They start gobbling at about 11 weeks, and although the males continue to gobble for their entire life the females stop gobbling after a few weeks.
The gobble works best from the roost and rapidly declines in volume on the ground, causing it to travel significantly less distance, and the gobbling of one male turkey generates a chorus of gobbles from other males, some quite far away.
And then we hear shock gobbling, a reaction among male turkeys to loud sounds, such as coyotes howling or barred owls hooting, not to mention car doors slamming.
Wild turkeys spend most of their time on the ground, walking slowly in search of food, but they can run quite fast if a predator approaches. When they want to fly, they take several short steps and then hop two or three times before they shoot up into the air—they can probably fly about a mile and attain speeds of nearly 50 mph. I once saw a flock of about 10 wild turkeys break into a run and burst into flight to avoid a very sweet looking German shepherd—by running and gobbling and bursting into the air the turkeys made so much noise the German shepherd ran behind its owner to hide, obviously spooked by the noise and spectacle of the birds taking to the air.
I tend to see wild turkeys most often when driving—I’ll notice some movement on the side of the road and then see the birds as they forage on the shoulder.
A birder I met told me about the logistics of reintroducing wild turkeys, and when I said I thought that sounded like an awful lot of effort he said, peremptorily:
“I can tell you never tasted wild turkey.”