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Junior Naturalist: Wild Turkeys
November 24, 2014

by Kristen Laine

A flock of wild turkeys has been eating the dropped apples under the ancient apple trees in the field behind our house. At least once a day, they emerge single-file from the woods in back. They feast companionably on the fermenting fruit. Then they parade off in a line, crossing the road by the mailbox as carefully as our children, looking both ways and watching out for cars.

The 10 to 15 birds in the fluctuating flock are a regular part of our life here. In late winter, toms (male turkeys) perform courtship dances on the field’s south-facing slope where the snow melts out early. They dip and spin and high-step and fan their tail feathers for the hens, who strike us as far less interested in the toms’ spectacle than in pecking for food on the ground. Still, every spring, we see chicks scurrying along behind their mothers. 

They’re flocking up now for the cold winter. The birds we see out back are fat and healthy, having gorged on this year’s fine acorn crop and our apples. The low-angled sun glints off their backs as if it’s burnished metal: reddish copper and gold, and iridescent bronze flecked with green and blue and purple. 

It’s hard to square our experience of these ambling flocks, as regular in their schedules and docile in appearance as a herd of dairy cows, with their reputation among hunters as wily, nearly invisible prey. They do seem miraculously to melt into the woods during the short shotgun season each fall. In the forest, their coloring — so striking in our open field — camouflages them against leaf litter, tree bark, and patchy sunlight. Knowing that helps remind us that they’re wild birds. 

They are in fact a long way from — though related to — the butterballs we sit down to at the Thanksgiving table. The Aztecs domesticated the South American turkey, which was then taken back to Europe by the Conquistadors and subsequently brought back to colonial America by the Pilgrims. That said, the first Thanksgiving meal is thought to have included not the farm birds but venison and wild turkey. 

The colonists at Plimouth Plantation called that first feast “a bounty of the land,” and what a bounty it was: Scholars estimate the population of wild turkeys in North America before the colonial period at 10 to 20 million. By the 1930s, though, the bird had been hunted nearly to extinction; government scientists figured that remnant flocks totaled fewer than 30,000 birds. The wild turkey had completed disappeared from New Hampshire by 1854. But a sustained effort by federal and state agencies to re-introduce the wild turkey to areas where it had once flourished has worked resoundingly well. Our flock is descended from 25 turkeys that were released in New Hampshire in 1975, and are among 40,000 now in the state — and 7 million nationwide.

Benjamin Franklin famously wanted the wild turkey to be the country’s emblem. This notion comes from a letter he sent his daughter shortly after Congress voted to make the bald eagle the national bird. Franklin, who knew his wildlife behavior, disliked the eagle’s thieving ways and what Franklin considered the bird’s cowardice. “He is a Bird of bad moral character,” Franklin wrote. “He does not get his Living honestly.” Franklin’s final assessment of the eagle: “He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country.” 

The wild turkey, on the other hand, impressed Franklin: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” 

I like thinking of the flock of turkeys out back as creatures who have refused to bow before power, as wily survivors that have not yielded their wildness. Benjamin Franklin probably wrote his letter in only half-seriousness, but his choice for the fledgling democracy rings true to me.

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Thanks for a story well told. I like your personal accounts of the birds in your backyard mixed with historical information.

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