Turkeys are 'bird of courage'

By Emma Shelly
Nov. 23, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.
Updated Nov. 24, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Wild turkey

Wild turkey   Contributed photo by Michael Gray for The Victoria Advocate

"For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character ... The turkey in comparison is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America ... He is besides, though a little vain and 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."

- Benjamin Franklin, 1784

It's silly how much I adore this quote and how much I love sharing it. Maybe that's because all my friends are raptor aficionados. Even the nonbirders will get excited when they see bald eagles, posting blurry cellphone pictures of an eagle silhouette online.

Benjamin Franklin obviously didn't share their enthusiasm, referring to the eagle as a bird of "bad moral character," referencing how it would sit and watch from its perch while fish eagles hunted in rivers and streams nearby. When the fish eagle would make a catch, then and only then would the bald eagle take to the air, pursuing and bullying the smaller bird until it dropped its prey.

Franklin called bald eagles "lazy," and while we know they can do their own fishing, it's also fair to call them scavengers.

In fact, they scavenge a lot of the time. They make frequent forays to garbage dumps, navigating their way through piles of trash, and will frequently congregate on the trucks and backyards of hunters (especially in places like Alaska), looking for leftover scraps. It might look like laziness, but that foraging strategy pays off and as we also know, why fix what isn't broken?

Still, it's easy to see how Franklin could make the comparison between the eagle waiting to steal and the bold wild turkeys of North America, whose attitude he seemed well acquainted with.

Wild turkeys are a whole different bird than the domesticated ones we raise. Although they are ground birds, they do fly and roost in trees. They can't stay in the air for long distances but can ramp up to 55 mph over short distances. It's startling (to say the least) when one of these things drop-flaps its way down from a tree right next to you.

Domesticated turkeys have been selectively bred to have larger breasts and shorter legs, meaning they can't fly at all, and they run more slowly than their wild counterparts.

Franklin called wild turkeys courageous, and it's fun to wonder if he noticed that the bare skin of their heads changes color based on their moods. A relaxed tom, or male turkey, has a head that is whitish/light blue with tinges of red.

When he feels agitated, threatened or excited, blood rushes under his skin and his bare head flushes a dark red. The same thing happens to a turkey's snood.

Besides being my new favorite word, the snood is the flesh wattle-like protuberance above the turkey's beak that might also hang down over the bill. Turkeys can contract and expand the snood based on how they're feeling, with a long, dangling snood indicating they're at ease.

Hunters take a lot of their cues from looking at the head and snood of a bird they're targeting and are skilled at predicting how a turkey might path based on the colors of its bare skin.

When Franklin was busy nominating the turkey for the national bird they were extremely common. Before Europeans arrived, it was estimated there were almost 10 million wild turkeys roaming North America.

They were so plentiful it seemed like there would always be an endless supply of the tasty birds to hunt, and no one regulated the take. It was always turkey season, and there were no bag limits.

Unsurprisingly, by the time the 19th century rolled around, turkey populations had nosedived. The extreme hunting, combined with an increased loss of habitat as more and more forest was cleared, meant the turkey population was reduced to just 2 percent of its original numbers.

The only thing that stopped a complete extinction was the Great Depression, which forced people back into cities in search of work. The abandoned farmlands slowly reverted back into forest, and the turkeys, hanging on by a toehold, were given some breathing room.

Since then, a capture-and-release program, where wild turkeys were caught and taken to areas that didn't have any, has been responsible for repopulating North America with this feisty bird.

Now, there are around 7 million wild turkeys in North America and many, many more domesticated ones. In fact, it's reported that 46 million domesticated turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving,

And although we don't have any wild turkeys in Brazoria County, think for a moment about how crazy it is that the bird you're enjoying (with yummy stuffing and cranberry sauce), almost went extinct not all that long ago.

Emma Shelly is the Education and Outreach Manager of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.


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