Let’s Talk Turkey!

The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is native to North America. It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which was originally derived from a subspecies in Southern Mexico. The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the turkey species that was encountered in the wild by the Puritans. This is the most widely distributed, abundant, and hunted turkey subspecies of the five distinct subspecies found in the United States. There are now over 5 million eastern wild turkeys living in an area that covers the entire eastern half of the US down to northern Florida and extends west through Illinois and north into Canada. The birds inhabit hardwood, mixed, and pine forests; in 1817 L.J.P. Vieillot first described and named the eastern subspecies using the word silvestris, meaning “forest” turkey.

Benjamin Franklin commented on the wild turkey in a letter to his daughter in 1784: “…For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/franklin-newrepublic.html#29

The adult male eastern wild turkey, called a gobbler or tom, can grow up to 4 feet tall and weigh more than 20 pounds. The gobbler has a characteristic red, white and blue head, blacktipped breast feathers and a copper/bronze iridescence. The mature female, called a hen, is darker and duller than the gobbler; she may be nearly as tall, but is lighter, weighing between 8 to 12 pounds. Eastern wild turkeys spend the winter in large flocks, separating into small groups or individuals in the spring for breeding. Courtship behavior patterns include gobbling and strutting by the males. Females scratch shallow nests in dense underbrush, lay a clutch of 10-12 eggs over ~ 2weeks, then spend the next 26-28 days incubating the eggs. The poults imprint on their mother within 24 hours of hatching, creating a strong social bond. By the second day out of the nest, wild turkey poults are performing most of the characteristic feeding, movement, and grooming behavior patternsof their species. By their second week they are able to fly short distances and at the third week they are able to roost in low trees with the hen. At age 14 weeks, male and female poults are distinguishable by body size and plumage. By fall, the pecking order of the sibling groups has been established and the young flocks are ready to enter the social organization of the surrounding population. The body growth of juveniles ends by the beginning of winter when the flocks, separated by age and sex class, settle into winter range.

By the mid-1800s, turkeys had disappeared in New Jersey due to habitat changes and killing for food. The NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife touts their Turkey Restoration Project as one of the greatest wildlife management success stories in the history of the state. Division biologists, working with the NJ Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, reintroduced wild turkeys in 1977 with the release of 22 birds. In 1979 biologists and technicians began to live-trap and re-locate birds to establish populations throughout the state. By 1981 the population was able to support a spring hunting season, and in December, 1997, a limited fall season was initiated. (In 2012 the spring hunting period was from the end April to end May and the fall hunting period took place Oct 27- Nov 3). There is now an abundance of wild turkeys throughout the state with turkeys found wherever there is suitable habitat. The population is estimated at 20,000 – 23,000 with an annual harvest of more than 3,000.

The above information was compiled from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Turkey , http://www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/turkey_info.htm, and http://www.nwtf.org/.
Thank you HP resident Joannie Turner for sharing your photos – the above two were taken in October and the bottom one dates to the winter of 2010.

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