Say “turkey” and most people conjure up the image of the cooked bird that graces holiday tables. Others think of the magnificent fowl roaming our forests.
A rafter of wild turkeys regularly forages through the woods around my house. Nope, I don’t mean I have a large wooden beam in the woods with turkeys perched on it. “Rafter” is one of those words for a group of animals that has drifted out of modern usage, like an “exaltation of larks,” which is also the title of a marvelous book on the subject by James Lipton. According to Lipton, these terms were mainly used by the upper classes to separate themselves from the riffraff — another word that came out of the common root, “raft,” meaning “a large and often motley collection of people and things.”
Between the etymology of “rafter” and our propensity to refer to the clueless among us as “turkeys,” it’s easy to have a low opinion of this bird — unless you’re a hunter. As turkey researcher R. W. Bailey once observed, “Under normal conditions, the ability of hunters to harvest turkeys is equaled, or exceeded, by the eternal elusiveness of the latter.”
Ben Franklin, who wanted to make the turkey our national mascot instead of the bald eagle, also spoke to the character of the bird: “For a truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . a bird of courage . . . .”
Meleagris gallopavo is the wild turkey species native to North America, while the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) hails from Mexico. Turkeys got their name because the first Europeans to land in the New World thought the birds were related to guinea fowl, which had been imported into Europe from Turkey and so were also known as “Turkey fowl.” Our native turkeys are actually in another bird family that also includes pheasants. Both families belong to the order Galliformes, which includes other large ground-dwelling birds, such as chickens and grouse.
The start of turkey domestication is in some dispute but apparently dates back about 2,000 years to the Mayans or Aztecs. The Muscovy duck is the only other domesticated bird species originating in the New World. European explorers took wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico in the early 1500s, then the domestic version was brought back with English colonists when they settled on the Atlantic Coast.
According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), wild turkeys mate in the spring, laying their eggs in dead leaves or vegetation in a depression on the ground, with the young generally emerging from their shells in early June. Hens raise the chicks on their own, although the young soon learn to forage for themselves.
A rafter of turkeys walking through a forest always reminds me of a royal procession, with the participants moving slowly and gracefully, casting their gaze from side to side. Hens and their broods may join together into bands of more than 30 birds, with some winter groups exceeding 200.
Turkeys have black, brown and white feathers and fan-shaped tails, which males proudly display when courting. The brown tips of the tail feathers distinguish the wild turkey from the domestic variety, whose tail feathers are tipped in white.
Male turkeys, and some females, have beards. Those of the males, referred to as “Toms” or “gobblers,” can grow up to a foot long. With heads normally a subdued gray, in spring the toms change to their courtship colors — white foreheads, deep scarlet necks, and bright blue faces. In Virginia, grown males average 17 to 19 pounds in the spring, according VDGIF.
While the turkey’s gobble is a familiar and often imitated sound, these birds can also be remarkably quiet. While walking in a forest I’ve been startled several times to turn my head and find a turkey sitting quietly at eye level in a tree just a few feet from me. Once they know they’ve been spotted, any grace they have on the ground is belied by their noisy and awkward flight to the nearest treetop.
Turkeys make a variety of habitats their home, with a combination of forest and open land being preferred. An omnivore that will eat nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds, and salamanders, according to VDGIF, they are especially fond of acorns. They pick these on the basis of their size and shape, since turkeys do not have an acute sense of smell. As with deer, in a good acorn year like this one, turkeys are more likely to stick to the forest where the seeds are abundant and hunters are hindered. Other predators — especially of the eggs and young — include snakes, skunks, crows, ravens, opossums, raccoons, rodents, dogs and coyotes.
Conversion of forest to other uses and overhunting (mostly for the market) led to the disappearance of wild turkey in two-thirds of Virginia and its becoming rare in other sections, with populations hitting their nadir by around 1880 to 1910. Reforestation and other conservation efforts have brought populations up to an estimated 180,000 statewide, according to VDGIF. In the 1940s wild turkey were caught and reestablished throughout all the states except Alaska.
We know that the wily wild turkey played an important part in the lives of this country’s founders and of the native peoples who preceded them. Keep that in mind the next time you call some idiot a “turkey.”