America’s tradition of Thanksgiving reminds us of the role of the turkey in feeding the pilgrims after their arrival to the New World. Long before that, the wild turkey played a significant role in the cultures of many eastern and southern Northern American tribes, who consumed the eggs and meat. The feathers of turkeys were used for clothing and headgear, as well as in sacred rituals.
North American turkeys are prehistoric — turkey fossils have been unearthed across the southern United States and Mexico dating back more than 5 million years.
Wild turkeys are native to eastern and southern North America, but not to California. Wild turkeys were brought to the western states in the late 1800s, and were quickly overhunted. They were brought back to the West in the 1900s and now can be found in every state except Alaska. After deer, they are the second-most-hunted game animal.
Turkeys were imported to San Luis Obispo County in the 1960s by a rancher in the Adelaida area. These big, colorful birds stride around woods and clearings like miniature dinosaurs.
Adult males, called toms or gobblers, have a featherless red head and throat, and wattles on the neck. Male turkeys have a showy fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. The male’s feathers include an iridescent sheen of green, purple and copper. Males typically have a “beard,” a hair-like tuft growing from the center of the breast. Young males are called jakes. Females, called hens, have less colorful feathers in shades of brown and gray.
In spring, males compete for mating rights with hens. Eggs hatch in about a month, and turkeys spend summers foraging in coniferous forests, open pastures and empty neighborhood lots. They can adapt to most types of native plant habitat as long as it includes dense vegetation for protection from predators and open areas for foraging. Wild turkeys eat acorns, berries, seeds, roots, insects and grasses, occasionally supplementing their diet with lizards or salamanders. Like many birds, they swallow grit and small rocks to help digest their food. Early mornings and late afternoons are most common times to see them out foraging.
Turkeys have many vocalizations, including gobbles, clucks, putts, yelps and cackles. Unlike their domesticated relatives, wild turkeys are agile flyers and can also swim. Turkeys are prey for coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, hawks and owls. Attentive mothers will use their powerful feet and wings to kick and beat at predators.
In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin compared the turkey favorably to the bald eagle:
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain & 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.”
As we consider the turkey and all the joy it gives us, we have many reasons to give thanks.
Michele Roest is a biologist and naturalist with a lifelong love for San Luis Obispo County. Her monthly column is special to the Cambrian.