| Oct 02, 2008

Outdoors - Eastern Wild Turkey

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - October 2, 2008 Eastern Wild Turkey Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Lorraine Julien

Since it’s almost Thanksgiving and fall is definitely in the air, I thought this would be an appropriate time to write about one of our most interesting native residents. The Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris Gallopano Silvestris) is the turkey species first encountered by the pioneers and from which most domesticated turkeys have evolved. The Eastern Wild Turkey is one of six sub-species of wild turkeys and, of course, the type we have here in Eastern Ontario.

Wild Turkeys, in general, roamed widely over most of North America before the coming of the white man. Probably unafraid of humans, these birds were easy pickings. Some birds were taken back to Europe where they graced many a dinner table as long ago as the 1500s. By the early 1900s our native Wild Turkey had mostly disappeared in Canada, primarily due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

In 1984, about 4,400 Wild Turkeys were released at 275 sites throughout Ontario in an effort to restore this largest of North American game birds. According to a recent article in a local newspaper, there are now approximately 70,000 Wild Turkeys in this province.

For those who escape the dinner table and predators, Wild Turkeys can live up to twelve years and males can weigh as much as 35 lbs. They are magnificent birds with the male standing almost 4 feet tall. Strong flyers, they can clear treetops quickly and can glide a mile or more with scarcely a wing beat. Although they do not migrate, when flying they can reach speeds of up to 80 km/hour. More often though, they run – at speeds up to 15 miles per hour.

The male, or tom turkey, has beautiful feathers in colours of red, purple, green, copper, bronze and gold. The head is virtually featherless but has fleshy growths called caruncles. Males have red wattles on the throat and neck which may be inflated during courtship. They also have a “beard”, on average about 9” in length, which protrudes from the breast and is made up of modified feathers.

Females are generally a drab brown and gray – possibly for better camouflage while sitting on the nest. This is the bird I’ve seen sometimes on the sides of local roads.

The mating ritual begins in early spring where the males perform a dance commonly referred to as strutting. Secluded woodlands ring with the gobbling sounds of dominant males. Their colourful iridescent tail feathers are fanned out with their wing tips dragging on the ground, and the head and neck bobbing back and forth. Each tom turkey reigns over his own little clearing. Imagine having a ringside seat - quite a sight to behold!

Eventually, the females are lured into each tom’s private harem – possibly as many as 10 or more females for a single tom. When egg laying time approaches, the wary females leave to build their hidden nests on the ground (actually just depressions scratched out of the forest floor). The fluffy chicks (called “poults”) are able to run soon after hatching and, when only two weeks old, can make short flights. The young birds are cared for entirely by the hen until they are adults.

Wild turkeys have fantastic eyesight and are very wily – unlike their domestic counterparts.

Interesting Stuff:

A Wild Turkey’s head and neck can be brilliantly coloured in shades of red, blue and white which can change with its mood, e.g. a white head and neck indicates excitement (something like a “mood” ring).

Droppings from domesticated turkeys are used as a fuel source in electric power plants in the U.S. and England.

Domestic turkey feather fibers have been blended with nylon and spun into yarn although most feathers are ground up and used as filler for animal feed

It’s great to see how common these birds are now thanks to the programs to re-introduce them back in the 1980s. When given a chance, they are real survivors, partially due to their ability to forage for many types of food – mostly grass but also nuts, berries, insects, but sometimes a frog or even a salamander may be added to their diet.

Please feel free to report any observations to to Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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