There were ten of them, strolling across a vacant lot in Empire a week or two ago. I have seen wild turkeys several times in Coos County, but this was my first urban sighting.
Previously I had seen wild turkeys several places north of Bandon, working through meadows at the edge of the woods. Turkeys are partial to the combination of grassy fields and adjacent forests, so the combination of lawns near woodlots probably look tempting to the 8- to 20-pound ground-birds.
Turkeys forage in grassy and forested spots for nuts, seeds, berries, and grass, as well as for snails and insects and the occasional small reptile or amphibian. They often expose the morsels by scratching the ground.
The shrubby edge between field and forest is also favorite nesting habitat for wild turkeys. Turkey nests are shallow, about an inch deep, and about the size of a sheet of office paper. They line the nest with whatever leaves or other plant material is nearby and lay 4-15 yellowish eggs with pinkish or rusty spots. As with most ground-nesting birds, chicks are ready to walk and follow the hen shortly after hatching.
While domestic turkeys have traded most of their flying ability for heavier bodies through our breeding, wild turkeys are strong flyers for short distances. In addition to escaping predators and moving from place to place, turkeys fly into trees to roost at night.
And, according the Cornell University’s School of Ornithology, turkeys can swim.
Every elementary school student knows what a turkey looks like -- well, some turkeys: The puffed-up bird sporting a naked, warty, brightly-colored head and a huge, upstanding, spread-out tail is a male display called “strutting.” Strutting tom turkeys fluff their body feathers, spread their wings down, and erect and fan their attractively-striped tails to make themselves look more impressive to the females and more intimidating to rival males.
Female turkeys also have naked heads, but their heads are less warty and far less colorful. The tails of females and non-strutting males are closed and tucked down. Even when their tails are folded, adult males can be identified by the long tuft of feathers (called a “beard”) that dangles from the center of their chest.
The characteristic “gobble” is primarily a male call, made to draw the attention of the females. Wild turkeys make a variety of other sounds, too, using cackles, whines, purrs, yelps, and more to communicate with each other.
The six subspecies of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) are told apart by subtle differences in things like the color of the band at the end of the tail. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) website, the “Rio Grande” is the subspecies of wild turkey found in western Oregon. The central plains states, south Texas north through Kansas, are the original native range for this subspecies that was introduced to California and other places in the far west.
Purposeful introduction of wild turkeys to new areas helped expand the population. The NWTF reports that today there are about 6.5 million wild turkeys in the US, significantly up from the 200,000 or so there were a hundred years ago.
Roast turkey (followed by turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey casserole, and more) are mainstays of autumn and winter holiday meals. Turkey is a popular food among wild animals, too. Turkey eggs are eaten by racoons, skunks, and opossums. Turkey chicks, juveniles, and adults are preyed on by crows and raptors, racoons, foxes and coyotes, bobcats and cougars -- even the occasional bear. Though I’d say people are probably the only predators of turkeys that go out of their way to add cranberry sauce.
The turkeys I saw last week didn’t seem all that concerned about me, keeping an eye on me, but not being in too great a hurry to move on. Apparently, wild turkeys can stand up for themselves.
Benjamin Franklin considered the turkey to be a more respectable bird than the bald eagle, which is known to steal fish from osprey, and thought the turkey would be a better emblem of our nation. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin wrote, “…though a little vain and silly, [the turkey is] a Bird of Courage [that] would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards…”
I wonder where I’ll see them next.