Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wild turkeys in Massachusetts

Turkeys in early morning light (Internet photo)
These impressive birds were hunted to local extinction by 1850 and not reintroduced to eastern Massachusetts until 1980-2000. Current estimates are that 20,000 wild turkeys reside in our state. Nuisance flocks have established themselves in Boston suburbs. Locally, several flocks live in Maynard and Stow, including one often sighted crossing Acton Street in Maynard, a bit south of the State Police Forensic Laboratory building. 

Adult males can easily exceed 20 pounds; females reach 10-15 pounds. Early mortality is high, but poults (hatchlings) that make it through the first winter can expect to live 5 to 8 years.

In Massachusetts the fall hunting season (last half of October) is already over, so no hunting until the spring season, which overlaps with the mating season. Spring hunters often use calls to mimic sounds made by toms and hens (adult males and females). An internet search on turkey calling tips will bring up audio recordings of fifteen different turkey sounds you might hear when out in the woods, especially shortly after dawn. Hunters are cautioned against using a gobble call, as a responding gobble call may not be a challenging male turkey, but rather another hunter.

Hunters use calls because no one is going to sneak up on a turkey - their eyesight and hearing are excellent. Instead, strategies include deliberately startling/scattering a flock and then moving to a place amidst them, mimicking their call as they vocalize to regather. Or else setting up at a spot that a feeding flock might walk through.         

Turkeys run. By preference, these are cursorial birds, meaning that they have evolved to be effective runners. Other species that trended this way include road runners and ostriches. Credible sources claim that turkeys can reach top speeds on the order of 25 mile per hour. Even if an exaggeration, clearly turkeys can outrun humans.

Wild turkey in flight (Internet photo)
Turkeys fly. Even large males can burst into vertical flight when startled, easily reaching the safety of a tree branch. A running turkey can take to the air and quickly reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour for a low-to-the-ground flight of distances of a quarter mile or more.     

Nests of 8-12 eggs are made on the ground. Poults can walk and feed within 24 hours after hatching, but are not able to fly for 8-10 weeks. This is the period of predator attrition on the order of 50-70%. Once they can fly, nights are spent roosted in trees. Flocks roost together, often in the same place for several nights. With dawn's light the flock wakens and passes some time quietly chatting before moving out.

Morning calls can be thought of as in the line of: "Anyone else awake? Well, I'm awake NOW. How about her, is she awake? Are the kids awake? Hey - everybody - wake up! Anyone ready to fly down to the ground? You go first. No, you go first. Mom - I'm hungry." Finally, the entire flock flies down and begins it morning feeding rounds, continuing to chat as they stroll.

Like us, turkeys are omnivores. Their diet includes fruit, berries, seeds, nuts (acorns and such), plus insects, slugs, snails and salamanders.

How these birds native to the Americas came to be called "turkeys" is a circuitous story. Spanish explorers brought turkeys from Mexico to Spain. From there, trade brought the birds eastward across the Mediterranean to the Turkish Empire, and trade again brought the birds to England - wherein they became "Turkey birds" and finally, turkeys. By 1600, Shakespeare was able to portray a Twelfth Night character's outrageous self-esteem by comparing him to a feather-fluffing turkey-cock. Although the Pilgrims did not bring turkeys with them on the Mayflower, they were already familiar with the animal.  

A male Broad Breasted White - the most common
breed of domestic turkey (Internet photo)

The domestic turkey is a different bird entirely from a wild turkey. Hundreds of years of domestic breeding have resulted in these becoming beasts of the not-wild, which cannot fly, nor reach running speeds much more than a lumbering stagger, nor mate on their own - the males being too clumsy and over-sized. Hence, artificial insemination. 

Farm-raised turkeys are killed at 16 weeks of age (hens) or 20 weeks (toms). Lifespan, for those kept as pets or zoo animals or pardoned by the President of the United States in an annual Thanksgiving ceremony*, is in the range of two to five years. For Thanksgiving 2013 the two turkeys pardoned by President Obama were named Popcorn and Caramel.

Turkey (not pardoned)
*Only since 1989 have turkeys officially received a Presidential pardon. Prior to that, starting with President Truman in 1947, each President ceremoniously receives a turkey (recently, two turkeys) from the National Turkey Federation - which used to be eaten.

While "flock" is the generic term for groups of birds, each of these species has its own unique group name. A group of turkeys is a rafter. Geese are gaggles on the ground and skeins when flying. Vultures make up a kettle while flying, but a wake or committee when on the ground. Crow, a murder; owls, a parliament.

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