Ben Franklin's Bird of Courage
Our very American wild turkey
Posted November 21, 2018
November, a season in-between, has its own beauty. Its varying browns offer the eye a respite from the riotous colors of the Catskills October, before the blinding glare of winter’s snows. The muted colors of November befit the silence that has settled over the landscape, as the summer birds, and their clattering songs of courtship, have left long ago. The year-round birds—chickadees and titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays, mourning doves, downy and hairy woodpeckers, crows, an occasional raven, and barred owls—and the winter visitors—dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows—saving their energy for survival, are mostly silent. The feeders that I put in the woods in mid-December, after the black bears have denned up, provide a bounty of black-oil sunflower seed and suet, a boon for the birds, especially when the ground is snow covered. But the truth is I hang the feeders as much as for myself, for the joy it gives me to see the birds, lured out of their hiding places by my offerings, proof of life even in the harshest winter.
It is Nature’s gift, as November closes around us and the resident birds retreat into the forest, that there is one bird brave enough to venture out—Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey, subspecies silvestris, meaning “forest,” which inhabits the eastern half of the U.S. and parts of Canada. It amazes me that birds, the biological class Aves in Linnaean taxonomy, can encompass species as diverse as the black-capped chickadee, which measures 5 to 5 ½ inches in length, and the wild turkey, which can stand 4 feet tall and weigh 30 pounds. Indeed, the wild turkey was the largest ground-nesting bird discovered in the New World by European settlers, and its popularity as a game bird brought it to the edge of extinction in its native range by the end of the nineteenth century. Wildlife biologists first tried restoring populations by releasing birds raised in captivity into the wild, an effort that failed. Then, in the 1950s, scientists captured and released whole flocks into the turkeys’ traditional range. The relocated flocks thrived, and a core group of 30,000 turkeys in the 1930’s has today become some 7 million birds nationwide. The wild turkey may truly be America’s greatest conservation success story.
Here’s a proof. I was driving up my dirt driveway one gray November day, soon after I moved here, when I stopped short. Turkeys, wild turkeys, were everywhere. I counted over seventy birds before I lost track—on the roof of the barn and house, even the shed, in the trees and on the grass. It was, inevitably, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s classic film of avenging nature, The Birds, but I wasn’t afraid. Slowly, I started to walk, thrilled to be among such magnificent creatures, which “putted” as I approached, their alarm call, then scattered, some running, others flying into the woods in short, surprisingly swift bursts. It was hunting season, and I flattered myself to think that the turkeys regarded my land and its structures as a refuge on the mountain. One of the first things I learned living in the Catskills is that wild critters are quick to grasp whom they can trust.
More than many birds, the wild turkey’s behavior is an indicator of the time of year. In autumn through winter, turkeys form flocks, to forage together for food—nuts, fruits, and grains; in spring and summer, they favor grasses, berries and insects—as well as for warmth and protection from predators. The flocks are segregated by sex and age. Chances are the formidable flock I encountered occupying my property was comprised of “hens”—adult females with their female offspring, “jennys,” which form the most populous groups. Adult males— “toms” or “gobblers”—tend to flock separately from “jakes,” immature males, smaller and without a “beard”—the long, dark fibrous plume protruding from the tom’s chest, which hens find so alluring. This fall, though, I have observed a crew of nine toms and jakes traveling together. They arrive every morning, often walking single file, the beardless jakes bringing up the rear. Occasionally, the toms peck at the jakes, as if enforcing their subordinate position in yes! the pecking order. Wild turkeys are social animals, with a strict hierarchy enforced by dominant birds in both male and female flocks. Such organization facilitates the flock’s survival and also awards breeding rights to more dominant members.
In summer, an occasional “lone turkey” appears, ambling along the edge of the meadows. It seems such a forlorn figure—at least in the eyes of this human, as social an animal as the turkeys. It’s usually a female, perhaps a subordinate that is simply tired of being “pecked on,” as it were, and has decided to go it alone. Or it might be a hen beyond her reproductive years, who no longer has such need of the flock. One morning last July, a tom arrived, again solitary, who would come every day and sleep, eyes closed, in a sunny spot next to the shed. It touched me, that this turkey, probably an older tom, felt safe here, away from the bullying of other birds and the unwelcome attention of predators such as fox and coyote.
Spring starts in the Catskills, regardless of the cold and snow covering the ground, when male wild turkeys, dressed in their courtship finery, fan their tail feathers for the females. In March, the tom’s eager hormones, stimulated by the lengthening days—the gift of light—paint his head and neck with handsome colors, bold blues and vibrant reds, and coat his feathers with the shimmering iridescence “Tom’s” female consorts find irresistible. The hens are gray-brown in color, a camouflage that enables them to hide in the brush, especially during nesting season. The toms’ browns are richer and more variegated, shining hues of bronze, green, red and gold, the black wings banded with white and the feathers on the tail and rump, copper tipped. Tom turkey in breeding plumage is such a handsome fellow, and when one followed me, a persistent suitor, fanning and gobbling (which can also indicate alarm), in response to my gobbling, I was flattered indeed.
In June, the first poults start to appear, emerging with their mothers from the high grass of the meadow. The turkey mother, devoted and protective, nestling her chicks beneath her at night, may have as many as twelve young. It is heartbreaking, every day, to see fewer and fewer of them, as predation takes its toll. At two weeks, the poults can fly, at least short distances, which affords them some escape. Hens often join with other mothers and their surviving chicks, for foraging and safety in numbers. The toms, in summer, hang together, in twos or threes. The “three amigos,” as I called one such cadre, including a fellow with a lame leg who still kept up with his mates, would come to my whistling for treats of cracked corn, clucking their contentment. They rewarded me by scratching deep gouges into the bare earth in the carport, where they would, with much flapping and scratching, take vigorous dirt baths to evict parasites, which was so funny to watch.
There are many myths about the wild turkey. No, turkeys don't drown in the rain. And Benjamin Franklin did not name the male wild turkey "Tom" to mock his friend Thomas Jefferson. He also did not suggest that the wild turkey be featured on our national seal. But in a famous letter to his daughter, he did describe the bald eagle as "lazy" and a bird of "Bad moral Character." The wild turkey, on the other hand, though "a little vain and silly," Ben called a "Bird of Courage" which "would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
The wild turkey has rebounded from being hunted to the brink of extinction in the Catskills and the rest of its North American range. I submit that, the wild turkey, as Ben called it, this “true original Native of America,” for its resilience alone, how it has triumphed, would indeed make a distinguished national symbol.