Delmarva’s Wild Turkeys

by Jim Rapp

Today, these large, spectacular birds are a fairly common sight, and easy to recognize as they strut along the forested edges of Delmarva's open fields.

No other bird is more synonymous with fall family traditions than the turkey. We learned the basics of turkey identification as kids by tracing outlines of our hands to make Thanksgiving art. Many of you probably have these mini-masterpieces hanging on your refrigerator right now. Unless you're a vegetarian, there's a solid chance you'll be dining on a perfectly roasted Butterball this Thursday with family and friends.

The domestic turkey that graces our Thanksgiving table today is far-removed from its' wild cousin. The Wild Turkey is one of only two domesticated birds native to the Western Hemisphere; the other is the Muscovy Duck.

500 years ago, European explorers shipped turkeys home from Mexico, where the large, plump bird had been domesticated centuries before. Fed mostly on wild nuts, tasty turkeys found their way on to menus all over Europe. When the English colonized North America's Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys back to the New World where they originated.

The name "turkey" may be connected to early shipping routes, when the birds were delivered to European markets through the country of Turkey. Another theory is that turkeys reminded Europeans of the similar-shaped Guinea Fowl, which were shipped from Africa through Turkey.

Wild and domestic turkeys make appearances throughout our history and folklore, starting with that famous meal at the Plymouth Colony in 1621. Few details are known about that first Thanksgiving dinner in what is now Massachusetts, but we know a little about what meat was served. Native Americans killed five deer for the feast, and the colonists shot wild fowl. The birds displayed on the dinner table may have included geese, ducks, and Wild Turkey - but we don't know that for certain.

There's a legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for the Wild Turkey over the Bald Eagle as our National Symbol, but there is no evidence to support this turkey tale. However, Franklin was against the Bald Eagle, stating in a letter penned to his daughter in 1784 that the eagle was a "Bird of bad moral Character" whereas the turkey was a "much more respectable Bird; a Bird of Courage."

President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and domestic turkeys began to appear on the dinner menu around the same time. Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation, the trade association representing the turkey industry, has presented a live domestic turkey to the President. George H.W. Bush gave the first official presidential pardon to the Thanksgiving turkey in 1989.

The natural history of the Wild Turkey in North America, and here on Delmarva, is a conservation success story like no other. By the 1930s, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat had decimated North American wild turkey populations from tens of millions to tens of thousands.

The Wild Turkey had disappeared from much of Delmarva by the late 1800s. Nearly a century later, State Wildlife Agencies, with the assistance of the National Wild Turkey Federation, began a restoration program that involved trapping wild birds from other states and relocating them to suitable habitat on the Peninsula. Since then, our turkey population has continued to increase and Wild Turkeys can be found in every county on Delmarva.

Today, these large, spectacular birds are a fairly common sight, and easy to recognize as they strut along the forested edges of Delmarva's open fields. Wild Turkeys are big, plump birds with wide, rounded tails, long legs, and a tiny naked head on a skinny naked neck. Their feather coloration is mostly dark brown with a bronze-green iridescent glimmer on their plumage.

Male turkeys, known as "gobblers," weigh on average around 18 to 22 pounds. During breeding season, their heads turn various shades of patriotic red, white, and blue. Adult males have sharp, bony spurs on the back of their legs. They also have a rough, black beard that sticks out up to 12 inches from their breast.

Female turkeys, called hens, are about half the size of the males, with less colorful feather and head colors. Hens do not have spurs and usually do not have beards.

You can also determine a turkey's gender from its droppings. A gobbler's poop will be shaped like the letter J, and a hen's will appear more spiral-shaped.

Turkeys travel in large flocks and scratch the ground for acorns, seeds, berries, insects, and other invertebrates. You can often find their scrapes in the leaf litter in Delmarva's forests. They also swallow grit and small stones to help them digest their food.

In early spring, males gather in open clearings to strut, puff up their feathers, flare their tails, and gobble exuberantly. This courtship ritual is meant to impress the gathered females, who often appear indifferent to the male's vanity display.

Males breed with multiple females and form all-male flocks after the spring breeding season. Females nest on the ground in dead leaves at the bottom of trees, or under thick brush and shrubs. Newly hatched chicks follow the female, who will feed them until they're able to find their own food. Giant flocks including several females and their young can grow to more than 200 individuals.

Wild Turkeys move around mostly by walking, but they can also run and fly when threatened. Turkeys see in color, and have excellent vision and hearing. They are adept at sensing predators, and can fly short distances up to 60 miles per hour to escape danger. Turkeys can also swim by tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails, and kicking. At dusk, turkeys fly into the lower limbs of large trees and hop upward from limb to limb to roost high above the dangerous forest floor. They usually roost in flocks for safety.

An important game bird for Delmarva, Wild Turkeys provide recreation and enjoyment for hunters and bird watchers alike. Due to their keen senses, Wild Turkeys are known as one of the most difficult animals to hunt.

When they're on alert and scanning their surroundings, Wild Turkeys can spot something as slight as a blinking human eye from 60 yards away. In addition to perfecting their disappearing techniques with camouflaged clothing, hunting blinds and face paint, many hunters practice the use of muscle memory to minimize their movements. The more a hunter can learn to perform by muscle memory, the less movement of the body, head, and eyes, and the lessened risk of spooking an observant and jumpy Wild Turkey.

Now that your brain is stuffed with more Wild Turkey information than you cared to know, you can stuff your face next Thursday over a delicious domestic turkey at your holiday feast. Happy Thanksgiving, Delmarva!