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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.

More common

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.