It was nearly four years ago and I just happened to look out my living room window on a drizzly, misty, gray November morning. It was early, the fog was heavy, and it was difficult to see over my front lawn to the stubs of corn stalks in the field across the road. As I turned to look away, a fleeting glimpse of a couple of shady, black forms caught my attention and held my gaze. Dogs? No, they moved too slowly, were oddly shaped, and were proceeding through the wet grass in a deliberate, almost strutting manner. What were they?
As I kept my eye on the mysterious pair, they gradually drew nearer and the dark forms became more recognizable. I could tell they were birds, but it seemed that my mind was playing tricks on me. Could it be that these actually were what they appeared to be? Could they really be... wild turkeys?
A little history about the turkey.
Long ago when the Europeans settled in the new world, turkeys were plentiful. By the early 1900's, however, they had been over-hunted and eliminated from much of their former range and were in danger of becoming extinct in North America. Hunters then stepped up in favor of laws that regulated hunting practices and volunteered to pay for wildlife restoration through license fees and taxes on firearms and ammunition. As a result, the 1950's saw many state wildlife agencies initiate wild turkey trap-and-transfer programs, and turkeys started making a comeback. Today, there are estimated to be over 7 million wild turkeys in the U.S. and Canada. In Illinois today, wild turkeys are strutting their stuff in 101 of our 102 Illinois counties.
Yep. Those were indeed wild turkeys in my front yard!
Meleagris gallopavo ... our largest gamebird.
Slightly smaller and more slender than the domesticated version, the male wild turkey (gobbler) has a dark, iridescent body, flight feathers barred with white, a long, blackish breast tuft, a barred, copper-colored tail, spurred, bare legs, a naked red and blue head, and red wattles. The female (hen) and immature (poults) are smaller and duller than the male, and usually lack the breast tuft.
They emit a wide array of sounds, from a loud alarm call to a gentle, gathering "cluck" call.
The courting male produces the familiar loud "gobble gobble" and can be heard as far as a mile away. They feed in fields near protective woods, foraging on the ground for seeds, fruits, and nuts such as acorns and beech nuts. They also eat insects, preferring beetles and grasshoppers, and will take small amphibians as well. They can run over 19 miles an hour and will fly short distances, and roost high in large trees at night.
Hens nest in woodlands, fields and grassland edges in thick cover, in a depression lined with grass and leaves. She will incubate 10-12 pale, buff eggs for about 28 days, often deserting the nest if discovered. Only five or six youngsters may live to adulthood.
Maintaining habitat for turkeys to live in will ensure that they will be around for years to come. Remember, if Congress had listened to Ben Franklin in 1782, our national emblem might be not the Bald Eagle, but the majestic Wild Turkey.
By: Esther Lutz
U of I Extension Coles County Master