With Thanksgiving upon us, Americans everywhere will soon sit down to feast with friends and family. Many will have a family’s secret sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie surrounding the feast’s centerpiece, the turkey, plump, juicy and stuffed with all kinds of different concoctions.
Most people think of a turkey as something that comes from the frozen section of the grocery store that was once covered in white feathers and lived on a farm. However, few consider what would have traditionally been on the feasting table – the wild turkey.
The wild turkey and its subspecies can be found in 49 of the 50 states (introduced to Hawaii and too cold in Alaska), Canada and Mexico. Nearly 6 million turkeys span these locations, with a decent population in Virginia and many on Belvoir. Wild turkeys require a variety of habitat types to meet their needs throughout the year. Turkeys use grasslands and fields to find grasshoppers; forests for acorns and sleeping in trees at night; and shrubby thickets for nesting and raising poults (the name of newly hatched turkeys, instead of the incorrect ‘chicks.’
All unique features
Wild turkey feathers are mostly black/brown with a rainbow iridescence and reddish/brown tipped tail-feathers. Western and Mexican subspecies have tail feathers tipped in a creamy white. If you find a turkey feather in Virginia, look at the tip. A brown-tipped feather belonged to a hen (female), a black-tipped feather is from a tom or gobbler, or a male turkey.
While the hen is typically drab in color to blend in while nesting, the tom is vibrant, hoping to catch the eye of a hen looking for a mate. The tom’s head is red, white, and blue (one reason why Benjamin Franklin thought it should have been the national symbol). Adorning the tom’s chest is a beard, a 7-12 inch “modified feather” made up of several strands that look like someone glued a paintbrush to him. On his legs are spurs. The older he gets, the longer they are and the turkey uses them like switchblade knives, when fighting off other toms.
A language all theirs
We are all familiar with the “gobble gobble” of the tom, but the wild turkey, just like humans, uses a variety of sounds to communicate. Whether it’s the “kee kee” of the poult trying to find its mother; the “yelp” of the hen trying to find a tom and entice him to gobble; the alarm “putt” used to signal other turkeys that trouble is lurking; or the soothing “cluck” and “purr,” like a cat, that signifies them being content, turkeys are quite the communicators.
So, when you sit down on Thanksgiving, give thanks for the magnificent wild turkey.