Friday, April 28, 2006
Biodiversity Corner: Wild Turkey
This magnificent male turkey has been displaying for two females at my home on Nowell Farme Road for about two weeks this April, the normal breeding time for wild turkeys. The fallen birdseed from feeders has probably tempted them to reside here in the nearby forest and roost at least 40 to 50 feet up in the large pines. These huge birds fly up with a sudden rush of noisy wings — quite an impressive sight!
Scientifically known as Meleagris gallopavo, the male turkey follows the females around about 10 to 15 feet away. At some inspirational point, he circles around and spreads his tail into a gorgeous fan, swelling up all his feathers with wings hanging down and does a little dance, uttering small clucking sounds. His head is a bright blue and he sports bright red wattles on his chin. A thin beard of hairy feathers hangs down from his chest. It was an amusing and entertaining sight as I tracked them with my camera.
The two females are not impressed. They continue feeding and preening, ignoring the male in spite of his beauty and persistence. They move on close by and the male follows, again fanning his tail and displaying. This continues several more times in the area and then they move out of sight. The next day they are back in this courting ritual that I observed for about two weeks, but not every day. Turkey courtship definitely takes quite a while.
When breeding finally takes place, a clutch of eight to 20 buff-colored eggs with black and brown markings is laid on the ground in a depression, hidden by dead leaves and grasses. Incubation is 27 to 28 days, with the chicks able to fly in about two weeks. The female alone cares for her brood.
Wild turkeys were depleted in the mid-1800s by over-hunting and forest clearing. They were restocked several times in Pennsylvania and introduced in the Quabbin Reservoir area in the 1950s. By 1990, several newly stocked groups became established in eastern Massachusetts where they are now very prevalent, as witnessed by many Carlisle residents.
They range from Vermont and Pennsylvania to Arkansas and down to Florida, but not in the higher mountains. The turkeys like open forest with assorted man-made (i.e., your backyard) and natural open areas. They are more slender than domestic turkeys that are obviously bred for meatier portions. For food, they scratch in the leaves for nuts, acorns and seeds, also eating grains, vegetation, insects, frogs and lizards.
It has been a pleasure to watch them and perhaps I'll see some tiny turkeys roaming around later. I will continue to "track the turkeys," young or old, with my camera and hope they will come back next year.
Sources: Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region — Donald and Lillian Stokes; Birds of New England, Smithsonian Handbooks, Fred J Alsop, III; Audubon Guide to North American Birds (Eastern Region), John Bull and John Farrand, Jr; Birds of Massachusetts, Richard R. Veit and Wayne R. Petersen; and my own personal observations.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito