Eastern Gray Turkey
Photo courtesy of Gary M. Stolz, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for National Geographic
Did you know that in 1782, the turkey lost by a single vote to the bald eagle to become our national bird? The decision didn’t sit well with Benjamin Franklin who complained about it in a letter he wrote in 1784 to his daughter, Sarah.
“For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
A short history lesson shows us that in 1621 the Plymouth colonists and Wapanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that became the first Thanksgiving celebration. It wasn’t until 1863 during the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day to be a national holiday held each November.
These large, plump fully-feathered birds with a distinct gobble-gobble probably got their name from the British who associated the bird with the country Turkey. Attempts to introduce the wild turkey to Britain as a game bird were unsuccessful due to extensive hunting and poaching. However, the wild turkey has played a significant role in Native American culture. Many eastern tribes subsisted on the eggs and meat, made jerky to survive the cold winters, and used the feathers to construct traditional headdress.
Aside from history, let’s talk turkey.
There are two distinct species of wild turkey: North American (Meleagris gallopavo) and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) found only in Central America. The North American wild turkey is divided into five subspecies: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s. Prevalent in Minnesota, the Eastern Gray turkey, also known as the “forest turkey” is the largest of the species. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) male turkeys – also known as “toms” or “gobblers” – weigh between 16-to-24 pounds with a wingspan of 64-inches. Juvenile male turkeys are called “jakes” and baby turkeys are known as “poults.” Female turkeys, or “hens,” are usually much smaller than adult males averaging 6-to-12 pounds. The NWTF reports the largest wild turkey on record weighed in at 37 pounds.
Due to habitat destruction in Minnesota, the wild turkey population dwindled significantly prior to 1988. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that through conservation efforts there are now as many 30,000 birds in the state; and the NWTF reported nearly 7 million wild turkeys in North America last year. Minnesota’s fall 2013 turkey hunting season runs from September 28 to October 27 but reports indicate that hunting permits are down, and the fall turkey harvest declined 19 percent during the past 2 years (almost 30 percent in Wisconsin).
Wild turkeys are omnivores and forage for plants, insects and animals. Depending on availability, wild turkeys will eat a variety of acorns, seeds, grass, caterpillars, rodents and snakes. A turkey swallows its food whole and the material is stored in the bird’s crop to be digested little by little with the help of the gizzard. They eat sand and grit to help with the digestive process.
Domesticated turkey feed consists of corn and soybean meal but can also contain cracked corn, shelled sunflower seed or millet seed . The DNR advises against the artificial feeding of wild turkeys and recommends using bird feeders designed to keep seed off the ground. Wild turkeys have been known to venture from their natural habitat, and even become aggressive, as reported last year in northeast Minneapolis when a flock of turkeys roamed city neighborhoods and streets.
Imagine seeing this in your backyard on Thanksgiving!