Saturday, November 22, 2014

Turkey Tidbits

Two Wild Turkey hens

     Wild Turkeys have made an incredible come back. Not that long ago, all the wild turkeys were believed to have been wiped out from the DC region. By 1910, very few remained in the woods of Maryland and Virginia, and certainly none in DC. Thanks to great restoration efforts by game commissions and hunting groups, Wild Turkeys were re-introduced into their former ranges, including into Maryland and Virginia. The first efforts using game farm birds in 1929 in Virginia failed miserably, but netting and capturing wild stock worked. Starting in 1955 up to 1993, about 900 wild caught turkeys were released into the wilder parts of Virginia. Now they are once again part of our landscape, and getting more common each year. That landscape does not need to be that wild either. They are found in even suburban areas such as Arlington and Fairfax. The photo below shows two wild turkey hens in my driveway near Kingstowne in Alexandria for example, far from a wild place! 

These two hens were in my driveway in front of my wife's van in suburban Alexandria, VA
A gobbler trapped at a Metro construction site in Arlington being transported to be released at a riverside Arlington park.

     I now regularly see wild turkeys. Last week I saw over a dozen gobblers in a large field on the Eastern shore as well as two weeks prior in Madison, Virginia. We've twice had wild turkeys show up at a Metro construction site and be released into wilder settings. Here's a short video of one such release:
     Turkeys regularly go into open fields when it rains. Not being able to depend on the leaves rustling, turkeys instead depend on their sharp eyes to detect danger under these conditions. It's not just humans that like to eat turkeys. I've seen red foxes hunting them, even having called them in while calling for turkeys. One red fox got so close (within 5') that I could even see that it had just one good eye and that the chickadees were mobbing it. My father has seen a coyote charging into a flock, barely missing them as they flew up into the air. 

A series of turkey hunting calls, including an old time call made from turkey bones in the middle. 

     But turkeys are quite wary and hard to see most of the time. Often, I only see the signs they leave behind such as their large tracks, feathers, "paint" from their droppings under a roost, scrapes from their searching for nuts in the leaves, or just hearing them gobble. 

Wild Turkey tracks. Given their large size, these are likely from a gobbler. 

Turkey scrapes where turkeys were searching for nuts to eat, using their large feet to rake away the fallen leaves.. 

     This time of year, turkeys are in single sex flocks. The males (called "Toms" or "Gobblers") are all in one flock while the females (hens) are in another. Turkeys sleep up in trees to avoid predators, often picking evergreens to shield them from the elements and prying eyes. The ones along the Potomac River often fly onto islands in the river to roost, the water offering them an added protection from man and beast alike. Since turkeys can defecate every half hour or so, the areas under such roosts are often covered in white droppings and thus called "paint." 

Think you know a thing or two about turkeys? Here are some turkey tidbits you might not have heard, just in time for Thanksgiving:   
  • Here’s some “turkey talk” for you: A mature male turkey is called a “Tom” or “Gobbler;” a mature female is called a “Hen;” a yearling male is a “Jake;” a yearling female is a “Jenny;” and a baby is called a “Poult.” In the farm trade, a turkey under 16 weeks is a “Fryer” and those 5-7 months old are called “Roasters.” Although it’s okay to call a group of turkeys a flock, some people prefer to call a bunch of turkeys a “rafter” or “muster.”
  • Only male turkeys “gobble.” Wild turkeys are said to have 28 recognized calls in their repertoire which they use to communicate with one another. Some are given such names by hunters as the “lost call”, the “putt” (alarm call), and the “kee-kee run.”
  • Turkeys have very distinctive heads that can even change color depending on the bird’s (especially the tom’s) mood. The fleshy growth on top of a turkey’s beak that can expand and change color is called a “snood” or “dewbill.” The bumps along a tom’s mostly-bare head are called “caruncles.” The loose skin hanging below the head is often referred to as the "dewlap" or "wattle."
  • All species of turkeys are native only to the Americas, but it is said that the King of Spain as early as 1511 asked that any ships returning from the New World bring several turkeys back with them. Domestic turkeys were common on many European farms soon after. Even 200 years ago, turkeys in England were being walked to market wearing “booties” on their feet to protect them.
  • The world’s oldest domestic turkey was believed to be 12 years and 4 months old. The oldest wild turkey was thought to have been 15 years old and was found in Franklin County, Massachusetts.
  • As of December 12, 1989 the heaviest domestic turkey ever (as recognized by Guinness Book of World Records back then) weighed 86 pounds and sold at auction for $4,400 – another record. Wild turkeys typically weigh about 18 pounds for a tom and 8 for a hen. The heaviest known wild turkey weighed 36 pounds.
  • Modern domestic turkeys have been bred so large that they often have to be artificially inseminated. They are not usually capable of breeding on their own. Their large size and weight causes them to suffer numerous heart, respiratory, and other health problems. Even those that are each year presented to the sitting president and given the “Presidential Pardon” at Thanksgiving rarely live more than 2-3 years after that. This tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving is said to have been started by Lincoln in response to his son Tad's pleas. Truman then pardoned one, but this didn't become the trend until George H. Bush did so again.

Wild turkey feathers from a gobbler .

  • All 3,500 feathers on a turkey are shed, except for those comprising the tom's "beard.” These are special long, hair-like feathers that grow on the chests of tom turkeys (and every once in a while, a few hens). The older the bird, the longer the protruding feather beard.
If you look carefully at this small flock of gobblers, you can see the beard hanging below.

  • Turkey hens lay on average 10-12 eggs in a nest hidden on the ground. The eggs normally hatch in 28 days. The poults can usually fly by the time they are 2 weeks old. Yes, wild turkeys can fly, over 40 miles per hour, but tire quickly and prefer to run up to 35 miles per hour instead. Hearing a turkey crash through the canopy when flying-scared makes it easy to understand why they prefer to run. Having almost been knocked out of tree stand by an incoming tom, I can say they are not that good at flying.
  • Where does the word “turkey” come from? Some say the English thought the birds came from Turkey. Some say it comes from a Native American Indian name that sounded like “firkee.” Others say the word is derived from “tukki,” after an Indian Tamil word meaning “trailing skirt” and used by Jewish merchants in Spain. It may also have come from the word “tuka” used in India to describe peacocks. Still others claim that it comes from the turkey’s alarm call, or “putt” that to some people sounds like “Turk! Turk! Turk!”
  • In Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma received 365,000 turkeys per year as tribute from his subjects.
  • Rumor has it that the term “Tom Turkey” came about as the mocking of Tom Jefferson by Ben Franklin when Franklin opposed the turkey as our national bird. Surprisingly, the turkey was not either’s first choice.
  • Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supposedly released turkeys into their tobacco fields to help control “green worms” (caterpillars).
  • The first TV dinner was roast turkey with stuffing, sweet potato and peas, a Swanson 98 cent special back in 1954. It was said to have been Thomas Swanson’s idea of what to do with Thanksgiving left-overs and aluminum airline trays.
  • Neil Armstrong’s and Edwin Aldrin’s first meal on the moon was turkey.
  • June is officially National Turkey Lovers’ Month.
  • White farm turkeys developed as a result of people wanting “cleaner” looking, unblemished meat on turkeys displayed for sale. Dark turkey feathers often leave blemishes where they are plucked and so were not as marketable. White turkeys were bred to compensate. 
  • In bowling, when a player bowls 3 strikes in a row it’s often called a turkey.
  • A turkey has 157 bones.
  • Henry VIII was the first English King to eat turkey. Edward VII started the tradition of eating it for Christmas.
  • Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated the second Monday in October.
  • North Carolina produces more turkeys than any other state. 90% of homes in the US eat turkey on Thanksgiving (that’s about 45 million turkeys!) but Israel consumes more turkey per capita than any country in the world (about 28 pounds per person!).
  • Although a lot of Native American Indian tribes ate turkey, some like the Tineh (Apache) refused to eat it or even use turkey feathers on weapons because they thought it a cowardly and timid bird. Other tribes used the fighting spurs found on the legs of gobblers as arrowheads for small game or even made turkey calls from their very wings. Many tribes used the tail feathers as fletching to stabilize their arrows in flight.
Fighting spurs on the leg of a young (2 year old (?)) gobbler, they grow and curve as they get older.

         So with these tidbits in mind, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

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