As crisp autumn air sweeps trees free of leaves, that float and flutter like bright butterflies twirling and falling into heaps of leafy carpeting . . . ‘A Bestiary . . . Tales from a Wildlife Garden’ continues with the princely Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris.)
Moving on from the class of Mammalia to that of Aves . . . featuring some of the many birdie beasts that share the land I call Flower Hill Farm . . . it seems fitting to begin with this magnificent bird.
Long before Europeans settled on the North American continent, our native wild turkeys solidly stepped upon the land in great numbers and were an important food source for Native Americans and wildlife alike.
I half expect to see one, two or a flock craning their necks as they walk cautiously . . . not far from where I sit . . . around viburnum, rosa rugosa and hydrangea bushes . . . with all uneasy wide eyes directed towards any movement in this human habitat of barn studio, little studio and 1790 farmhouse. They have excellent eye sight and not only can out see anything I can but cover a 360 degree swath of view . . . making it hard to capture their portraits.
The confident regal male in the photograph above sports an impressive wattle or caruncle . . . note too the sharp spurs on the back of his sturdy legs.
Wild turkeys have good reason to be fearful, for humans pose the greatest threat to these handsome creatures. Their numbers are sound now but in the early 1900’s wild turkeys were nearly extinct due to what else but human mismanagement. We can put things right when we put our minds and resources to it as we did with restoring wild turkeys. They are also preyed upon by most all of the predators already feature here in this bestiary . . . be they in egg, juvenile or adult stage of life.
The male wild turkey is often called gobbler, jake or tom and cares not a tat for his young . . . leaving the raising of his progeny of poults or chicks to the females . . . also named jenny or hen. Each spring, courtships begin and I enjoy hearing guttural gobbles floating up from the forest floor. I wish I could see the more senior toms strutting about a flock of females making spectacles of themselves. Standing proudly spreading fine profuse feathers like large fans along with other dramatic maneuvers and calls they woo the females into submission. What jenny could fail to be impressed with such jake displays . . . and thus the boldest gobblers takes on harems of hens.
This is the only time one may see the hens with a tom . . . for the two make groupings by gender moving through field and forest in numbers for safety, convenience and a sense of community . . . for they are social beasts. Hens . . . once their poults are a few days old and can follow their mothers . . . will join together and share the responsibility for caring for the youngsters and as always more eyes can keep a safer watch on all.
I have often stopped my car along the road as thirty or so wild turkeys walk across the man-made surface in a more or less straight line . . . with their sometimes tiny poults safely in between the devoted and dutiful hens.
In the photo above, I am able to barely catch a photograph of hens and poults feeding on wild blueberries. Seeing and sensing my presence they quickly disband in opposite directions.
It is odd to see such a large plump bird flying, but wild turkeys can and do fly . . . sometimes advancing with swift speed. They will roost up in trees at night to sleep safely away from predators. Before I felt the outdoors too animated with growls directed at myself, I would often walk out into the dark landscape admiring forms, stars and moon. I recall the feeling of intrigue at hearing wild turkeys high up in hemlock and pine, as their wings brushed against the trees full, evergreen boughs.
One early summer late afternoon, I look out and catch the lone hen in the two photographs above . . . perching in my beloved Black Cherry . . . perhaps she is escaping from a predator on the forest floor below. I fear my large, dark black camera eye makes her fly away.
Flying high might protect wild turkeys from ground predators, but if a Great Horned Owl is nearby and has a mind to . . . they would not be safe from his or her crippling grip.
In any group of wild turkeys ( The hens above are part of a larger flock of females.) there always seems to be more than one designated sentry. While others forage in our north field for insects, seeds, nuts, fruit and arachnids . . . the sentinels keep a watchful eye and seem to have me in focus.
There is a pecking order in these flocks and I often see wild turkeys lining up to enter the forest with one leading all the others in a column that stays remarkably and respectfully together.
More often than not . . . no matter how careful I am . . . when I open a door or walk out to get a better photograph . . . the wary wild turkeys dash off in fright taking flight towards the tree tops along the forest edge.
It is a spectacular sight to see a flock of wild turkeys in flight . . . however . . . honestly . . . I never frighten them on purpose.
The male above was too far away to get a very good portrait and yet, this noisy pixelated one does softly capture the design and color of their wattle, snood . . . just between the eye and curved beak . . . and the loose skin between both called dewlap. These characteristics of the male are markedly different or absent in the more protected, duller female.
A group of six jakes above and below . . . again too far away for my camera to capture clearly . . . do reveal another unique feature belonging only to the males. The tufts or ‘beard’ that dangles from their breasts are a notable curiosity. The males are also larger than the females and can reach up to four feet in height . . . it seems they are more like five feet tall, when stretching up in alarm to better eye the landscape around them.
These wild gobbler bachelors will travel about their ‘home range’ . . . which could be as much as 400 to a few thousand acres . . . not far from their favored flock of hens.
Here on our twenty-one acre hillside (that is connected to thousands of acres of both populated and protected wooded and open fields and farmland to the north, east, south and west) the land is now an ‘up to scratch’ wildlife habitat . . . and scratch is exactly what wild turkeys do in the act of searching for food.
Along our property, north and south corner fields lay between stands of hardwoods. We mostly mow for wildflowers and pollinators, as well as, to control invasive plants and trees. Our wildlife habitat consists of open fields filled with wildflowers and grasses abundant in buds, insects and seeds . . . also suitable for nesting; a blueberry field with two large oaks offering acorns . . . spreading along the lower eastern slope; shrubberies and a crabapple orchard bearing fruit and cover . . . surrounding the old barn . . . now converted studio.
Also dotted along the blueberry field are blackberries and raspberries. Continuing down the hillside below the blueberry field, the forest has stands of hardwood including oak, black cherry, hickory and black locust all providing food . . . along with a pine grove and many hemlocks for shelter.
When walking through the forest, I walk along the well worn path made by wild turkeys. Other than maintaining corridors for beasts . . . we allow the forest to grow mostly as it will.
Winter can be hard on wild turkey and other wildlife. Heavy snow can bend and cover wildflowers and grasses that have been left standing . . . burying valued seeds and overwintering insects.
If we have hard packed snow and it is icy the wild turkeys will slip and slide getting to their destinations, but this is better than when we have thick blankets of softer snow . . . for they sink and walking becomes very difficult.
I often see wild turkeys out in the crabapple orchard scratching and digging in the snow to find tiny fallen apples.
When the orchard was very young, it was a source of great amusement, for I would gleefully observe from inside . . . through the windows of my barn studio, as the large birds would leap with wings wide open up into the then thin trees to pluck the apples. There would always be a number of hens running around the base of the small tree trunks catching the crabapples that got away from the bulky beasts balancing in the lean canopy. If the snow surface was coated with ice the wild turkeys would slip and nearly tumble into one another while determinedly darting for the apples.
Today the crabapple trees have widened in girth and canopy providing important winter food for wild turkeys and other wild beasts. This wild turkey may be a juvenile jake and seems to be looking right at me and my camera.
Perhaps being young and less wary he finds the need for food more incentive for staying put regardless of my presence.
Wild turkeys still have a difficult time in keeping their balance and use their broad wings to help stay within the canopy of crabapples.
I was able to hide behind a curtain to get the photographs above during a snow storm and was glad not to have frightened the birds from a critical winter feeding.
During the winter months wild turkeys are often seen by my dairy farmer neighbor near his grain storage.
It is so important that we provide corridors and habitats for these and other wild beasts.
Wild turkey are very beneficial beasts adding beauty to our landscapes and helping to keep pesky ticks and other insects at bay. They are also an important food for both humans and other wild animals.
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