It seems fitting to meet this regal bird around Thanksgiving doesn't it? The wild North American Turkey and the animal many choose to eat to celebrate Thanksgiving lead very different lives. Domesticated turkeys are really similar but the commercially raised variety are a bit heavier as they are bred to gain weight fast. Domestic turkeys are also usually white although there are some brown domestic varieties. Domestic turkeys are the same animal as the wild turkey but there is something far more regal about the wild bird we associate with Thanksgiving. The wild turkey we often associate with the Thanksgiving holiday is reminder of the impact this American species had on early American, Mexican and South American History.
Wild turkeys are a native North American bird ranging from Southern Mexico to the Southern US. Ancient Mexican cultures were the first to domesticate the bird and it is believed that more northern Native American groups either traded with central Mexico groups to obtain domesticated birds or began domestication separately and further north. Native Americans in the southwest did domesticate the bird to use for food and also feathers which played a large part in the cultural celebrations. it isn't believed that Northern Native American maintained domesticated turkeys in a farming type arrangement but may certainly have enjoyed the meat through hunting practices.
Wild turkeys travel in groups of hens and chicks most of the year. Each hen may lay between 4 and 15 eggs. Once hatched, they travel with their mother and by midsummer, often join up with other hens and chicks. Male turkeys may travel with these groups but often live more solitary lives. Flocks of turkeys will travel together in the fall, eating seeds, nuts, corn, insects and even small animals then come across. If you watch a flock, they truly do look like a group of dinosaurs and you can see the reptilian root.
Wild turkeys forage all day ever day, preferring open woodlands, edges of fields and roads and at night they fly up into the trees to roost and be safe from predators. It is only in the spring that the male turkeys interrupt the flocks of females with their showy displays. Incidentally, this is also the only open hunting season on turkeys in the upper Midwest. So if you do enjoy eating wild turkey over the holidays, it was likely harvested on the spring.
We're lucky enough to have had a very large flock of wild turkeys that visited us daily last year. This year it appears to be just three hens and four or so chicks. We're not sure what's happened, if maybe the flock split up or maybe there was some sort of predation or accident but we're hoping our little local flock grows.