— by Carol Malnor
Turkeys are almost synonymous with Thanksgiving. But the domesticated turkey on our table is NOT the same as a wild turkey in our woods. “Although the barnyard variety is a rather stupid creature (leading to the insulting tone of the term ‘turkey’) the original wild form is a wary and magnificent bird,” states Kenn Kaufmann in Wild in Lives of North American Birds.
Wild turkeys are larger and faster than their domesticated cousins. And they can fly—something domesticated turkeys can’t do. Benjamin Franklin thought the wild turkey was a “more respectable bird” than our national bird, the bald eagle.
When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, millions of wild turkeys lived in the woods and fields. But by the early 1900s, hunting and habitat destruction had reduced the turkey population to only 30,000 birds. Many conservationists thought turkeys would go extinct.
Fortunately, in the 1970s, a conservation group called the National Wild Turkey Federation formed along the lines of Ducks Unlimited, a successful duck conservation organization. Partnering with government agencies, they turned the tide for turkeys. Today there are 7 million turkeys in the U.S.
But for some people this is too much success. Turkeys have expanded their range, often moving into suburbs and onto golf courses. Many residents object to living near wild turkeys, citing their noise and mess as major concerns. They’ve called neighborhood turkeys “menacing, ill-tempered, and dangerous.”
However, most conservationists agree with Matt Miller, “Turkeys prove what we can accomplish – when there is passion and political will. Let’s not overlook a spectacular success. This Thanksgiving, raise a toast to the return of the American wild turkey, and use its example to help guide our way in restoring other wildlife.”
A few fun facts about turkeys:
- Only male turkeys (toms) gooble. Females (hens) cluck or make small, chirp-like noises.
- Wild turkeys can fly up to 55 mph for short spurts. But you’ll mainly see them on the ground pecking at grass, seeds, acorns, nuts, berries, and small insects.
- At night turkeys roost in trees to stay safe from predators, such as coyotes, foxes, and raccoons.
- They have excellent eyesight and can detect motion 100 yards away—the length of a football field. By rotating its head, a turkey has a 360-degree field of vision.
Get an “up-close and personal” look at turkeys from PBS Nature: My Life as a Turkey—one person’s remarkable experience of raising a group of wild turkey hatchlings to adulthood.