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THROUGH THE WOODS: Some facts about wild turkeys

Hungry hen turkey. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

SPRING IS IN THE AIR and wild turkeys are really getting into the annual mating season. I have handsome toms looking like puffed-up ads for Thanksgiving, and demure females distant from them. There is a myth that Benjamin Franklin proposed our wild turkey as our national symbol. Eagles had bad behaviors of thievery while the turkeys were very congenial so Benjamin Franklin defended the honor of the turkey. I feel sorry for turkeys being pejorative. People say that something disappointing was a “real turkey.”

The name turkey has murky origins. In King Henry VIII’s time, turkeycock referred to exotic fowl such as peacocks, possibly because the country of Turkey had exotic exports. The wild turkey is the only Western Hemisphere bird to receive worldwide importance through domestication. As North American natives, our wild turkeys were shipped live to England, and we adopted their name turkey. Native Americans had many names for the turkey. The Blackfoot term omahksipi’kssii, literally means “big bird.”

Wild turkey feathers have been used in the traditional dress of many tribes, particularly the feathered cloaks of eastern Woodland Indians like the Wampanoag and the feather headdresses of southern tribes like the Tuscarora and Catawba. The Turkey Dance is one of the most important social dances of the Caddo tribe, associated with songs about war honors and tribal pride. Some other eastern tribes, such as the Lenape, Shawnee, and Seminoles, have turkey dances as well. You can understand this when the tom turkey dances around to impress hens with lots of footwork and a colorful presence. The book Birds of Algonquin Legend by Robert E. Nichols Jr. is an interesting book I want to read.

Florida State University Associate Professor of Anthropology Tanya Peres and graduate student Kelly Ledford wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports that Native Americans as early as 1200—1400 A.D. were managing and raising turkeys. They are noticing larger bones than current wild turkey bones and they are studying their DNA. Some of these bones were used as tools by our native peoples.

Young turkeys are called poults and recognize their mother’s calls at only two days old. Toms gobble and hens can produce a wide range of purrs, clucks, yelps, rattles, cooing, cackling and putts. These can have individual variations and poults have their own calls. Hens have quite a language and ways to communicate. Turkeys have been all over my place and I love to hear them.

Besides a deer on my porch, there was another recent surprise at breakfast. A hen turkey flew to my porch railing, looked in at me, stretched up her long neck, and proceeded to eat sunflower seeds from the hanging birdfeeder! They are so smart and probably watched the songbirds feeding. Besides the bears, it was another reason to take down all bird feeders. Now I throw seed on the lawn and sit quietly on the porch and watch and listen to the turkeys. Wonderful!

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