Wild turkeys of the North Fork: Outdoors column

A tom with a long snood. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

In just a couple of weeks, many of us will be gathering with family and friends around the dining room table to indulge in the feast that is Thanksgiving. For many, the centerpiece of the celebration is a large, plump, juicy turkey. Unfortunately, other than a good recipe, few people know many details about the majestic bird that Benjamin Franklin had praised as being a more respectable bird than a bald eagle.

There are two species of turkey that can be found throughout the United States, Mexico and southern Canada. The first, simply named the wild turkey, is divided into five subspecies (Eastern, Merriam’s, Rio Grande, Osceola, and Gould’s), each varying slightly by plumage and separated by region. The second species, the Ocellated turkey, is found to live in a small range of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Here on the North Fork, the eastern wild turkey is our local resident. With males weighing up to 25 pounds with a wingspan of four and a half feet, it is a large bird that is difficult to mistake for any another. Distinguishing between the sexes is also quite easy. Mature males, known as toms, are much larger than females (hens) and have a darker plumage with a metallic sheen across most of the feathers.

Depending on their mood, the color of a tom’s head can change between red, blue and white, while a hen’s head is a constant drab blueish grey. The most noted identifying characteristic is a tuft of modified feathers located on the chest of a tom that looks more like thick hairs rather than feathers. Known as a beard, its length (which can be over 10 inches) can determine how mature the tom is. A short, stubby beard is indicative of an immature male, which is known as a jake. If you are still having trouble differentiating between toms and hens, you can always look at their droppings. Those from a tom will be spiral in shape, while a hen’s will be “J” shaped.

Like most birds, love is in the air during the early spring months. From high above the ground in their night roosts, well before sunrise, a tom will start making thunderous calls known as gobbles. As a hen awakes and hear his cries she will begin to chirp/cluck back, informing him of her location.

After sunrise, they will fly to the ground and the tom will begin to search for his lady. Once found, he will puff himself up into a “ball” and extend his tail feathers to an upright position. His head will intensify in color and his snood (a fleshy protuberance on his forehead) will grow a considerable length. He will then strut around her, making drumming sounds, while he demonstrates to her just how large his tail, beard and snood are. If he is successful at this courtship, they will mate and then quickly move on to the next available hen, never to see her or his future offspring again.

A strutting tom. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Nesting takes place on the ground in areas of cover such as tall grass or shrubs. She will lay between 10 and 15 eggs that will hatch approximately one month later. The young, known as poults, leave the nest after hatching, but will stay under the watchful eye of the hen for several months. They can feed themselves upon hatching and will eat a diet similar to an adult (nuts, berries, seeds, grasses, and insects).

Although the turkey you will purchase at your local grocery store or butcher shop for Thanksgiving is farmed, they have strong ties to the wild population. Wild turkeys are only one of two birds (the other being the Muscovy duck) native to the New World (North and South America) that have been domesticated. It is believed that they were first farmed by Native Americans as early as 25 A.D. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers took some of these domesticated turkeys back to Europe where they were extensively farmed and further distributed. These birds were brought full circle in the 1600s when they returned to the New World with the next wave of European explorers.

Besides the obvious characteristic of being all white, farmed turkeys differ from their wild descendants in several ways. They have been bred to be much larger in size and in doing so, they have lost their ability to fly any significant distances. Their wild cousins on the other hand, can fly at speeds of 55 mph and travel a quarter of a mile. Domestic turkeys have shorter legs not built for speed, while the long, muscular legs of a wild turkey will allow them to run at speeds of 25 mph to escape predators.

A wild turkey hen. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Drive along any of the roads of the North Fork or visit one of its many parklands and it is commonplace to see flocks of wild turkeys. Prior to 1992, this was not the case. In fact, they had been absent from Long Island since the late 19th century due to the clearing of woodlands for farms and firewood. In the early 1990s, biologists from the state Department of Conservation (DEC) trapped approximately 75 wild turkeys from upstate New York and reintroduced them at three locations in Suffolk County. This program was extremely successful and now the wild turkey population on Long Island is estimated at 3,000 birds and growing.

With the booming turkey population on the North Fork, now is a perfect time to search them out and get a better appreciation for the guest of honor at this year’s Thanksgiving Day feast.