A wild turkey tale

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Tom turkeys put on a show
Tom turkeys put on a show for hens in their flock. (Tami Gingrich photo)

As the introductory streaks of light began slowly working their way across the April sky, the wild tom turkey stirred on his perch high among the branches of a white oak. After a bit of preening and stretching, he looked out over his territory, a sight familiar to him as he was an old tom, coming five years of age. A nearby barred owl belted out “Who cooks for yoouuuuuu” before retiring for the day. Throwing his head forward, the tom immediately responded with a powerful and complex, throaty gurgling call of a descending nature which seemed to echo among the mature hickory, oak and beech trees. He issued it again and again.

Then, the gobbler flew deftly to the ground, cackling while he descended. As he began to scratch through the leaves, searching for his omnivorous breakfast of nuts, seeds, insects and other arthropods, the rays of sun filtering through the forest highlighted his breathtaking iridescence of bronze, green and gold with hints of red and copper.  His wings were dark, punctuated by bold white barring, while his rich, brown tail sported a wide black band near the tip. His featherless, patriotic-colored head never seemed to appear the same shades of red, white and blue from one minute to the next. As the sun peeped over the horizon, it created an unmistakable silhouette — a large yet slim-bodied bird with a long neck and small head. From his breast protruded a wiry “beard” over a foot in length, and sharp, curved, daggerlike spurs emerged from low on the back of his legs. At 25 pounds and standing nearly four feet tall, he was truly a king among his species.

Unbeknownst to this tom, a hen just over a nearby ridge had heard his early morning gobble, which stopped her in her tracks. She was young, experiencing her first adult spring and was unfamiliar with the area, having recently strayed from her wintering flock. Yet something in the old tom’s vocalizations appealed to her and she remained attentive, unable to restrain herself from emitting a string of “yelp” calls which immediately caught his attention. Responding with a powerful gobble, he nimbly moved across the ground at a quick pace in her direction, the two, coming face to face as he topped the crest of the hill.

Enamored with the lovely hen before him the tom sprang into action, puffing up his body feathers until he appeared twice his original size. His tail shot up vertically, opening into a magnificent fan that swiveled to face her as she moved. His wings drooped downward, making contact with the ground, exposing their dazzling patterns. All the while his chameleon-like head was changing color. The wattle beneath his chin moved up and down, and a fleshy appendage hanging down from above his beak, the snood, raised and lowered as it changed in length. He began to strut in front of the hen, rattling his wing feathers while an undertone of low humming sounds complimented the display. Years of practice combined with his maturity resulted in a breathtaking spectacle. Spellbound by her inamorato, the hen immediately lowered herself to the ground. She had found a mate, one that was genetically superior, and had scored handsomely.

A tom turkey displays his plumage
A tom turkey displays his plumage. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Shortly after their encounter, the hen began to search for a secure site in which to locate her nest. At the edge of a woodland clearing, a thick patch of blackberry brambles appealed to her. Making her way to the thorny center, she scratched a slight depression into the ground, lining it with dried leaves and grasses. Once a day she returned to deposit a single beige-colored egg shrouded with reddish-brown spots into the nest.

After 12 days, her clutch complete, she settled into the task of incubation. Despite the fact that all of this was new to her, Mother Nature was there to guide her. One night, the quiet footfalls of a coyote trotted within 6 feet of her. Remaining perfectly still and with the wind in her favor, the canid continued unknowingly on its rounds. The hen often heard the distant gobbles of her suiter as he continued to woo additional hens in the area. Then, one morning, a deafening boom echoed through the forest. Despite her fear, she sat tight until the danger passed. She never heard the tom again.

The hen doted on her eggs, turning them gently several times a day. In the early morning hours of the 28th day, she sensed movement as tiny beaks began to pip the shells open and audible peeps reached her ears. She sat tight. By afternoon 11 of the 12 eggs had hatched, and the precocial, downy poults, eyes open, fully feathered and dry were anxious to move about and explore their new world. She obliged by taking them into the nearby woodlot. She taught them how to scratch the leaves aside to expose tiny morsels of food which included worms, snails, spiders and seeds. A Cooper’s hawk nesting nearby swooped down and deftly snatched a poult that had strayed too far from its mother’s watch, carrying it off for consumption on a horizontal limb.

The hen brooded her remaining poults every night, keeping them warm and safe beneath her body. Food was plentiful and their growth was notable. At two weeks of age, they began to fly. A red fox passing through the area noticed the hen and her brood and approached stealthily. As he honed in on the youngsters, a warning “putt!” from the female sent them skyward. In knowing anticipation, the fox launched itself dexterously, snatching one from midair, crunching it down as he trotted away. Now the chicks were old enough to gain access to the trees, keeping them off the ground and safe from nocturnal predators below. One night chilling spring rains beat down for hours, saturating the feathers of three poults and causing them to succumb to hypothermia. This left only six youngsters, only one of which was a jake.

For the next five months, the poults traveled with their mother, gaining strength, size and maturity, as she was an attentive hen with superior mothering qualities. As the summer progressed, the family met up with other turkeys and traveled together as the flock continued to grow. By summer’s end, only the young jake and two of his sisters remained. At the onset of autumn, the flock had grown considerably, containing several families of hens and their chicks.

Eventually, after the chaos of the fall hunt had died down, all of the jakes in the flock separated themselves and formed an overwintering group of their own. As the first signs of spring became apparent, the individuals in this group became restless, eyeing each other up with the thoughts of gaining dominant status. The single jake that remained from the young hen’s first nesting was a flawless specimen. He was intelligent, strong, and keenly aware of his surroundings. Other jakes in the flock stepped aside at his approach, sensing his superior qualities. It was soon apparent that he was a bird to be reckoned with, as even the older, neighboring toms regarded him with concern. After all, his genes were handed down to him from one of the most magnificent toms to ever reside in these woods and it was obvious that his legacy would continue to live on through many generations to come.

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

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