The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is considered the king of the upland gamebirds, impressive for its size and ability to challenge hunting skills. Once pushed almost to extinction, good management has brought this bird back to where it is fairly common to see them.
The turkey is easy to identify by its large size and long neck, tail, and legs. The male and females are slightly dimorphic, meaning there are some differences in appearance, but not much. Both sexes are generally brown-black in color with a black band on the tail. The male has a “beard” on its breast, which is a tuft of modified feathers that hang down like a tie. The head of the male is much more colorful, being bluish with red wattles (wrinkled loose skin that hangs from the chin). The male is larger bodied than the female, and can weigh 33 pounds by age 1.
Turkeys prefer habitats consisting of large tracts of mature forests interspersed with open areas that provide diversity for feeding and reproduction. Wild turkeys are opportunistic omnivores, eating a variety of plant and animal matter whenever available. They eat all manner of insects, along with crayfish, spiders, snails, and centipedes. Plant foods are mainly seeds and wild fruits, with some minor use of leaves and buds, especially in winter. They are particularly fond of nuts such as acorns and beechnuts. The crop of one turkey was found to have 221 acorns in it. The highest rated foods found in our area include (in order of importance) oak, dogwood, corn, grape, beech, blackgum, poison-ivy, greenbrier fruit, lespedeza grass, grape, huckleberry, and some use of other cultivated grains.
The turkey was one of the first animals in the Americas to be domesticated by native Indians, especially in Mexico. The Aztecs considered the bird so important that they dedicated two religious festivals a year to them. Spanish explorers took the domestic breed back to Europe where it became very popular to raise for meat. Pilgrims on the Mayflower actually brought domestic turkeys with them and were surprised to find them wild and so common when they got here.
Benjamin Franklin was so fond of the turkey that he wanted it to be named our national symbol instead of the bald eagle. To quote him: “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird (than the eagle), and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage…”. I’m glad Ben didn’t get his way, because it doesn’t seem right to eat 675 million pounds of a national symbol each Thanksgiving.