Log Cabin Chronicles

Talking Turkey

wild turkey
Wild Vermont turkey photographed
last month in Derby, Vermont,
by Al Lague.

BETH GIRDLER

What is three feet tall, runs 30 kilometres an hour and has been around for at least 50,000 years?

The wild turkey, Melegris gallopavo, is considered by many to be one of Quebec's most impressive birds. It is the largest member of the order Galliformes or fowl-like birds.

Adult males, or gobblers, can weigh 12 pounds and more. Their plumage is banded, chestnut-colored, iridescent, and shimmers with shades of green, blue, and rose.

The famous naturalist/artist John James Audubon praised the wild turkey. Ben Franklin deemed it a noble bird and pushed to make the wild turkey the national bird of the United States, pointing out that the bald eagle is primarily a carrion eater.

I like to imagine what went through the minds of early settlers the first time they clapped eyes on a wild turkey. I am sure it was something in the vein of "My God, that bird could feed a family of eight!"

Naturalist and wildlife artist William Pope, settled in Upper Canada in the early 1800s. He kept a detailed journal on the wildlife he observed and painted. Pope refers to wild turkeys as "those splendid birds." He goes on to provide an accurate description...

    The wild turkey... is a shy, watchful, wary, bird exceedingly mistrustful of man's intentions and difficult to be approached; extremely quick in hearing, and sharp sighted... sprightly in its step, and manner, swift and nimble as a greyhound in its run, and when it once gets on the wing will fly a mile or more before it settles.
Turkey mating season begins in early spring. Gobblers attract females, or hens, by their characteristic gobbling -- a sound that can carry for 1.5 km. The turkeys gather and the mature males puff out their feathers, fan out their tails, and strut their stuff for the females.

The gobblers are aggressive and armed with long, pointed spurs. Battles over females often break out and can last a few minutes to an hour.

Jakes, or year-old males, tend to watch the event from the sidelines. The males are polygamous and take no part in nesting or in the rearing of the young. Nests are built on the ground and may hold as many as 20 eggs. The chicks are precocial (able to stand and feed themselves at birth) and can fly into trees by two weeks of age.

Wild turkeys prefer mature forests to nest, feed, and roost in but will range into pastureland and crop fields in the non-breeding season.

There were an estimated 10 million wild turkeys at one time in North America, but due to intense hunting and loss of habitat their numbers were driven to dangerously low levels.

Over the past 50 years, with hunting controls and reintroduction programs, wild turkey populations have been growing again. The wild turkey population of Canada is still very small. They were extirpated (once found regularly but no longer occurring) in Quebec.

The first new sighting was made in 1976. The present population is restricted to isolated flocks found primarily in the Eastern Townships, especially along the U.S. border. The population in Quebec is considered to be vulnerable, hunting is prohibited. and flock numbers appear to be increasing.

Since they tend to be wary, few people get the chance to observe this spectacular bird. I have seen wild turkeys crossing the road near Bunker Hill and in the Kingscroft area.

This winter I discovered tracks at the edge of the wood behind my house. A friend and I followed the tracks that wound lazily in and around a dense tree stand. It was obvious the birds were searching for food. Wild turkeys walk and run more than they fly, taking approximately 30,000 steps a day.

After nearly an hour we caught up with the flock of maybe eight or more individuals and got a quick glimpse of these tall colorful birds before they disappeared once more into the undergrowth. We were thrilled.

Although I was not fast enough to get a photo of the birds, I did take some pictures of their huge tracks in the snow.

Sadly, a large section of the very forest this flock has called home was thoughtlessly cleared for a proposed industrial park. I say "thoughtlessly" since neither the new owner of the property nor anyone holding municipal office in Ayer's Cliff or Hatley where these birds range bothered to find out what wildlife might be lost before issuing a permit destroying valuable habitat.

The laws for the protection of wildlife species have been under scrutiny for some time. Although an animal may be designated as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered, and protected under the law, there have been no laws protecting the habitat they need for survival. This situation will be changing this March when new laws protecting habitat as well as endangered species will come into play.

Ignorance is often behind the disappearance of species. I encourage anyone familiar with local wildlife make a list of plant and animal species and where you observed them and present the list to your municipal council. I also urge municipalities to take the initiative, find out what wildlife exists within your boundaries and set aside green space to protect it.

I consider having wild turkeys in my town a privilege, something to be proud of, something to value.

If you have wild turkeys in your area, please let me know, or inform your local ornithological or naturalists group. Contact me at 819-838-4366 or mail to laker@abacom.com.

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Copyright © 2000 Beth Girdler/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.2000