The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 26, 2004


Biodiversity Corner Wild Turkey

Name: Meleagris gallopavo or Wild Turkey. There are six sub-species of which the most common is M. gallopavo silvestris, the Eastern Wild Turkey. Adult males are also called "toms" or "gobblers" and juvenile males are called "jakes."

When and where seen: On November 9 Hal Shneider saw a group of seven wild turkeys on Bingham Road. Wild turkeys can be seen in Carlisle throughout the year.

(Photo by Midge Eliassen)

Distinguishing characteristics: These are large birds; the males are about four feet long from beak to tip of tail, and the females three feet. It is hard to mistake wild turkeys for any birds other than domesticated turkeys which are a little bit larger. The body feathers are dark brown when seen from a distance and show a greenish iridescence at close range. The flight feathers are barred with white, and the tail feathers are tipped with a chestnut color. The head is bare, warty, red and blue. The male has a red wattle and a long thin black "beard" in the center of his chest. In the breeding season, from mid-March through to May, you may see the very distinctive fanned tail of the male.

Pecking order: Wild turkeys live in status-conscious social groups where the rank of an individual is managed by the "pecking order." Top-ranking birds can peck on others of lesser status. Turkeys that have become accustomed to humans will include the humans in their pecking order and treat them accordingly. Also, humans perceived as males (regardless of their actual gender) may be threatened by gobblers and called to by hens, while those perceived as females may be displayed to or followed by gobblers. Mirrors and other shiny reflecting objects confuse the turkey's pecking order. The instinct is strong and since the "intruder" doesn't go away, the turkey may persist in attacking the image even returning to it after being chased away. Ben Franklin, in criticizing a veterans' organization for choosing the bald eagle as their emblem (he thought the drawing of it looked a lot like a turkey), remarked that the turkey might be a better emblem. He commented that the turkey "is, besides, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on."

First Thanksgiving: William Bradford, who arrived on the Mayflower, was one of the leaders of that group of English Puritan Separatists now referred to as the Pilgrims. He served as governor of the colony for 35 years and kept a journal Of Plimouth Plantation. An excerpt from the journal describes the autumn feasting in 1621 as follows: "...besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to that proportion."

Population history: Wild turkeys existed throughout Massachusetts at the time of the Mayflower arrival. As colonization progressed and land was cleared for agriculture, turkeys became rare. By 1851, they were no longer found in the state. Between 1911 and 1967 several attempts were made to restock them. These attempts used pen-raised stock and failed. In the early '70s, Mass Wildlife shanghaied 37 wild turkeys in New York state and set these unwitting pioneers free in Massachusetts. The program was successful and continued through 1996 by which time a total of 561 turkeys had been relocated. The average statewide fall turkey population is now around 18,000 to 20,000 birds.

References: Mass. Wildlife at; Pilgrim Hall Museum at

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito