Wild turkey

Wild turkeys are far more nimble than their domesticated cousins.

If you happen to see a sharp increase in turkey activity in the next few weeks, don’t be alarmed.

Early spring is turkey mating season. This is the time of year that finds groups of male turkeys courting even larger groups of females, strutting with spread tail feathers and using a multitude of specialized calls in order to conjure up some early season romance.

While it can seem like these groups of turkeys arrive in the area suddenly, turkeys do not migrate but instead spend the winter hidden away in dense undergrowth and perched in evergreen trees.

Mature males only spend time with groups of females in the spring, and the majority of their day consists of displays of fitness and bravado.

By fanning their tails, dragging their wings and loudly gobbling, males display their readiness to mate to everyone who will watch and listen. After the throes of spring passion have left, the turkey circus splits up into groups of mostly adult males and groups of young males and females.

While they quietly retreat back into the wilds from which they emerged, turkeys provide important services to the ecosystems around them. In fact, turkeys also played a large role in sustaining ancient North and South American cultures and helped American pioneers survive the hardships of early American life.

Despite common misconceptions, the first Thanksgiving celebration probably did not include turkey, as European settlers preferred the taste of duck and goose to turkey.

Turkeys were used and venerated by ancient cultures thousands of years before the celebrations near Plymouth Rock, however. The ancient Aztecs and Mayas domesticated South American turkeys and relied on them for food and protective feathers. This made turkeys one of the first animals domesticated by humans, and one of only two North American birds ever domesticated.

While the turkey most commonly seen in the Eastern U.S. is a slightly different species, its role in the life of early Americans was just as important. Native Americans used turkeys extensively for food and religious purposes, and as European settlers moved inland, turkeys were a large part of their diet.

These settlers found turkey so delicious that large populations were shipped to Europe and those that remained were heavily hunted. So heavily, in fact, that by the 1930s turkeys were in real danger of going extinct.

Similar to tree squirrels, large initiatives were established that sought to re-introduce turkey populations throughout the country by capturing wild groups using subtle methods such as rocket-propelled nets. The captured birds were then taken to other areas of the country to repopulate. After a few hiccups these initiatives worked, and today the American turkey population roaming the countryside is in the millions.

While turkey hunting is a popular pastime, the majority of the more than 45 million turkeys eaten in American Thanksgivings each year are domesticated stock raised in large farm environments. These domesticated turkeys have been deeply altered by humans.

Most domestic turkeys have developed white feathers in lieu of their typical camouflage patterns, and many have been selectively bred to possess such mammoth breast sizes that normal flight and mating is impossible.

Wild turkeys are much more nimble, and keep garden pests at a minimum through their constant feeding on insects, especially when they are raising young in the spring.

Turkeys also help disperse the seeds of a wide variety of native forest plants as they snack on berries and nuts. Humans aren’t the only animals to appreciate the taste of a plump turkey – almost every predator in and around the forests where turkeys live use them as important food sources.

By leaving dense undergrowth and generally allowing areas of your property to grow “wild,” it can be very easy to foster local populations of these regal birds.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at brannen.basham@gmail.com.