Monday, November 19, 2012

Talking turkey

As viewed from the kitchen window, a flock of female turkeys meanders close to the house.

Simply Living
November 19, 2012

I may not be eating turkey this Thursday but there’s a good chance I’ll be devouring the sight of several gawky gobblers ambling around our property.  

A flock of wild turkeys seems to appear every year just before Thanksgiving.  The ladies – no male has yet made an entry - have a regular route.  They emerge from the pinewoods to a broad clearing between the lake and fig orchard.  From my seat at the kitchen table, I have a perfect view of them meandering along, pecking at seeds, bugs and low-hanging fruit.  They seem especially fond of the figs.

I’ve come to associate the arrival of wild turkeys with the onset of cool weather.  While their whereabouts the rest of the year remains a mystery, I know in autumn there’s a good chance their daily rambles with take them close to our house.

The Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Osceola) is one of five subspecies of wild turkeys in North America and the only one to live exclusively in the Sunshine State.  Slightly smaller and darker colored than the eastern wild turkey, Osceola, as it is commonly called, has plumage that blends well with its ranges in marshy lowlands as well as in palmetto, pine and oak woods.

From my experience watching and attempting to follow the small flock that frequents our property, I’ve found turkeys to be quite adept at avoiding observation.  When feeding (which is most of the time), one hen acts as watch guard, surveying the surroundings for signs of danger.  

Apparently, they consider me dangerous because whenever I try to get close – no matter how ably I practice my best silent stalk – I inevitably trigger awareness, which then causes the group to retreat quickly into the underbrush.  Though I’ve tried to follow them into the woods to see where they go, I’ve never been successful.  Their plumage blends so well with their habitat and they move so swiftly, they vanish in a flash.

I have so many unanswered questions about ‘my’ wild turkeys.  Where do they go at night?  Why haven’t I ever seen a male?  Or babies?  And how come they seem to only appear in autumn? 

I know that at nighttime, wild turkeys perch in the low branches of trees and with that knowledge in mind, I’ve walked through the forest at dusk with an eye to seeking out potential roosts.  Much to my disappointment, I have yet to find one.

I know that males (toms) and females (hens) live in separate groups, coming together in the spring to mate before rejoining single-sex flocks.  Young males (jakes) form a third flock until they reach maturity and are ready to mate.  I have no idea why in all the time I’ve been observing the birds I’ve only seen females.  It could be because they only come together during springtime and at that time of year they frequent other foraging grounds.  It remains a mystery.

Frequenting different foraging ground might also be the reason I have never seen baby turkeys (poults).  After mating, the hen scratches out a rough nest amongst the fallen leaves and twigs in the woods under or near a log.  Over a period of about two weeks, she lays 10-12 eggs, covering them with leaves until she is ready to sit upon the entire clutch.  Once incubation starts, it takes 27 days for the brown-speckled eggs to hatch.  The young birds are able to fly less than two weeks later.  At that point, their chance of survival increases because they can fly up onto a branch to roost with their mother instead of remaining in the nest where predators are more likely to find them.

I realize I’m lucky to see all the wildlife I do but that good fortune doesn’t stop me from wanting more.  Someday I hope I’ll look out my kitchen window and see not only a flock of hens but also a tom in all his male turkey glory.  Someday perhaps I’ll walk through the woods at dusk and actually discover the tree in which the birds are perched.  And someday - maybe best of all – I’ll catch a glimpse of tiny poults trailing behind their mother as she teaches them how to forage, fly and beware of dangers.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’ll not only be thankful for the amazing wildlife encounters I’ve already experienced but for the many wonders yet to come. 

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