Welcome to Kings Park Focus on Nature. In recent years we’ve noticed the return to our neighborhood of an impressive bird that has been away for some time – the wild Eastern Turkey. Meleagris gallopavo is a large ground dwelling bird that is similar in size and mass to the more familiar Canada Goose. These birds were widespread when the European colonists first arrived in North America. When they first laid eyes on the big birds they believed them related to another, similar game bird which was domesticated in Europe, having been introduced there from Turkey. Though this assumption was incorrect, The “Turkey Fowl” of Europe lent an abbreviated form of its name to the North American bird.
The Eastern Turkey was widely hunted for food, of course, and numbers of the species declined appreciably throughout its range. Meanwhile, the initial European explorers of this continent were so impressed by the stout and tasty bird, that they brought examples back home to Europe for the purpose of domestication. The birds selected for this were primarily a Mexican subspecies of the Eastern Turkey. These domesticated birds then were brought back to America, the land of their ancestors, by European settlers as barnyard stock. This is the genesis of the turkey dinner you may be enjoying this Thanksgiving.
The wild Turkey continued to decline due to over hunting and habitat destruction. The eastern bird prefers to reside in mature hardwood forests with a scattering of clearings with wetlands a plus. Historically, our tendency to clear forests, plant crops or create suburbs, and fill wetlands were major factors in the reduced population of the turkey. By the end of the 19th century, Meleagris gallopavo, the bird favored by Benjamin Franklin as America’s iconic symbol, was gone from Long Island.
In the mid 20th century there were government programs to re introduce the various subspecies of Meleagris to its former range. In the early 1990’s a number of the big birds were introduced to Long Island, in Suffolk County. The pace of suburban development on Long Island has slowed, and the overall landscape has recovered some of its woodland character. This habitat is attractive to the Turkey. Their population has rebounded to about 3,000 individuals. The appearance of one of these large, showy birds in our suburban backyards is still a surprising sight, and many people assume that they are looking at an escaped barnyard bird on the lam and looking to avoid destiny as the centerpiece of a holiday feast.
The male and female Turkeys are both very dark brown in overall appearance, embellished with lighter tan markings. Their feathers posses a beautiful sheen, which ranges from bronze, to green, blue and violet. They possess legs that are long, sturdy and largely bare of feathers. In the male of the species their legs have “spurs” on the backside. The necks and heads are also mostly devoid of feathers. The skin on the head of the male bird is red and blue, with the forehead of the bird being nearly white. During courtship these colors on the male turkeys head become even more vivid. A cone shaped fleshy protuberance called a “snood” hangs over the bird’s beak from the top. Male turkeys have a streamer (or “beard”) of bristle – like feathers that sprout from their chest.
It is the fan shape tail feathers, especially those of the male bird, which are the most recognizable feature of the Turkey. Together with the stout body, the extravagant, fan shaped tail, and small head on a long neck project an image which has been “immortalized” by legions of young students who have created the classic drawing of “Tom the turkey” using their hands as stencils to represent the birds main features!
This fan shaped tail plays a key role in Eastern Turkey courtship. The breeding season begins in mid spring. The male will spread his tail feathers, puff up his body feathers, and make the resounding gobbling sound to attract a mate. Additionally he “struts” his stuff, and his head and neck colors intensify.
Female turkeys lay as many as 17 eggs in a depression in the leaf litter that barely qualifies as a nest. The hatchlings are precocial, that is they quickly gain their feet and can follow their mother on foraging expeditions. They are covered with earth tone colored down, and are very well camouflaged. I recently encountered a mother Turkey while hiking, and failed to see her babies until the little guys suddenly began popping up from hiding places and darting toward their mother. About a dozen small chicks materialized out of the forest floor, and though they were right at my feet, I didn’t see a single one until they were up and running. And, they are quick, I should mention!
The young turkeys will follow their mother eating seeds and insects. The adult birds also eat insects, seeds such as acorns, and small vertebrates such as frogs and salamanders. In time these family groups combine with others, and create aggregate flocks that can number dozens.
While turkeys prefer to go about their activities on the ground, they are by no means flightless, and are actually powerful flyers. Additionally they do not sleep on the ground, but will roost overnight in trees.
Turkeys are back in town! They are a great example of how nature can rebound if we are stewards of the environment and give nature a chance. Enjoy the outstanding photographs of wild turkeys accompanying this blog. They are the products of the amazing eye and talents of Chris Paparo. Be sure to see more of his work at www.fishguyphotos.com, Facebook at Fish Guy Photos, or Twitter @ fishguyphotos.