The vivid blue of the autumn sky was interrupted only by the white contrails of high-flying jets. The planes raced across the sky with enviable speed and apparent clarity of direction.
Our progress was certainly slower, but we were enjoying the Pennsylvania countryside on our way to visit with friends. As we cruised north, my gaze shifted to an open field that bordered a dense expanse of forest cover. My view was brief, but the birds were unmistakable.
The big birds were foraging, heads down, working their way toward the woods. A single bird lifted its long neck and tiny head up for a moment to make sure the flock was still safe. The contrast with the bulking, black body was almost comical. These wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were oblivious to the nearby traffic and to the effect their peculiar body shapes had on a cursory observer.
Wild turkeys are the largest game bird in the United States. The males are dramatically larger than their female counterparts. The toms weigh about 16 pounds while the hens usually tip the scales at 9 pounds or so. Males are also significantly taller and have proportionally larger wingspans as well.
The domestic turkeys bred by the industry for U.S. holiday dinner tables are scarcely recognizable as a related species. The birds raised for
traditional turkey dinners often weigh more than 30 pounds, making even a big wild tom seem small by comparison. The coloring is different as well. Many domestic birds are white instead of the dark coloring common to the native birds.
Wild turkeys were an important food source for many Native Americans. But as time went on, the birds were hunted with increasing sophistication and with near-disastrous results. By 1900, wild turkeys were eliminated from much of their native range as a result of overhunting and loss of appropriate habitat.
By the middle of the last century, though, a concerted effort was undertaken to restore the species. The result has been an enviable success story. Wild turkeys are found in every one of the lower 48 United States as well as parts of Canada and Mexico. There are six recognized subpopulations of the species. Population estimates exceed 4 million birds.
The turkeys I saw out the car window were large birds with dark bodies on top of long legs. The birds had thin necks and very small heads. Seen up close, the male exhibits red wattles and has a long, black chest tuft. During mating season, the tom's bare head is distinctly blue and the neck is bright red, almost scarlet. He will also show a bright white patch on his forehead and the chest tuft will be large and protruding.
Turkeys have large tails, which are usually closed and pointing down to the ground. These tails can be fanned out into an impressive display. In Eastern birds, the tail, uppertail coverts and lower rump feathers are tipped in chestnut.
Male turkeys are the source of the "gobble-gobble" that we automatically associate with the species. That
voice in the wild is booming — an explosive sound that can be heard up to a mile away.
Males also have dangerous leg spurs that they use to fend off competitors as well as to hold females during mating.
For all of their size and impressive display skills, toms make horrible fathers and provide no care to young birds. Females incubate clutches that range from 4 to 17 eggs. When they hatch, the chicks are fully feathered and ready for action. Females will lead the chicks away from the nest and help feed them for a few days before they are strong enough to manage on their own.
Like the birds I saw in the Pennsylvania countryside, turkeys travel in flocks. The group I saw numbered about 25 birds. These flocks were foraging for dinner. The rule for turkeys is, if it is on the ground, it must be food. The birds eat acorns, seeds, nuts, fruits, insects, the fronds of early fern plants, springtime buds and even salamanders.
In spite of their impressive size, these birds roost in trees every night. Their typical flight is a few rapid wing beats followed by a brief glide to a landing. These birds are at home in the forests, especially oak and hickory forests that supply such an abundant source of food.
The flock I saw was sauntering along, trying not to miss a single morsel of food while it made its way into the protection of the nearby woods.
Unlike the distant jets that were exhibiting blinding speed and clear direction, these birds were content to meander about and see where the food trail might take them.
There's a lot to be said for that approach to life: Keep my head down and plow ahead with the goal being a good meal and the safety of a good place to spend the night.