By Sally Griffin
Do you ever wonder were turkeys got their name? Did they come from the country Turkey? The answer is yes and no. Guinea hens and cocks were first imported into England from Africa by way of the area of Turkey and came to be called turkey cocks and hens. When the Pilgrims became acquainted with “our” turkeys, they confused them with the African version and gave them the same name – Turkey. When, many years later, scientists tried to differentiate between the two birds, they also got things wrong and retained the name of the African bird for our American model.
Maybe, this name confusion explains why turkeys lost by one vote to the bald eagle to become our national bird. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter, said, “For in Truth, the Turkey is in Comparison (to the bald eagle) a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true Native of America … He is besides, though a little vain and 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.”
Our first close-up encounter with a certain turkey was when he was defending his territory — not from the British — but from what he thought was another tom turkey. We had a house built into the hillside and one window was on ground level. When the sun hit just right, this window functioned as a mirror and this tom, on seeing his own reflection, did not hesitate to attack and attack quite noisily. Unfortunately, the mirror effect usually worked in early morning and our household often had a rude awakening.
Evidently, the tom wasn’t too embarrassed by the window episodes and settled into our yard with seven or eight hens. They would spend their days scrounging up insects to eat. We must have had quite a few insects, because they stayed around for some time. Once, as we were quietly watching them from the window, our neighbor let the dog out. He started barking and, much more quickly than we could have imagined for such big birds, they flew into nearby trees and perched motionlessly. They were amazingly well disguised. If we hadn’t known where they had perched, as long as they stayed still, we could never have found them. Eventually and sadly, they ate up the insect population around our house and moved on.
When we researched our turkey flock, we learned some interesting things about turkeys. They can burst into short flight at over 55 mph and they can hit this speed very quickly. Although we never saw this, they can also run at up to 30 mph.
“Wild turkeys are cunning, wary birds,” said Ed Gorman, small game manager of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “They have excellent eyesight and they can move very fast to avoid predators. These characteristics have been bred out of the game-farm and commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving dinner.”
Wild turkeys mate in the early spring. The mating begins while they are still flocked together for the winter. The toms compete with each other in an elaborate mating dance. The toms strut from left to right with their breast outthrust, head drawn back, wingtips dragging and tail feathers spread as wide as they can make them.
After the hens have made their choice, I’m not exactly sure what happens next. But when it is time for egg-laying, the hens scratch depressions in the ground and build their hidden nests. Laying an egg for up to 20 days, the hen returns to courtship ritual each morning.
After an incubation period of less than a month, the hens will have sole responsibility for the chicks until the next spring. The chicks are little bundles of fuzz that can run as soon as they hatch and can make short flights at the tender age of two weeks. This is good because before their first year, they are on their own for the rest of their lives.
While the hens are rather dull looking, the full-grown tom turkey can be quite spectacular. His feathers have hints of red, purple, green, copper, bronze and gold iridescence. The tom’s head becomes bright red during mating season, in sharp contrast to the rest of his plumage.
Many Native American tribes thought highly of turkeys and often made coats and other clothing of turkey feathers. The turkey was so important to the Aztecs that they revered the turkey as a god. Southwestern tribes buried their dead in turkey-feather robes so that the turkey could guide their loved ones into the next world.
Colorado has two distinct kinds of turkeys: the native Merriam’s Turkeys and the Rio Grande Turkeys, which were introduced to the state in 1980.
The Merriam’s species are primarily found in open meadows with nearby ponderosa, oak brush and pinion juniper stands. They like more mountainous zones west of I-25.
The Rio Grandes like cottonwood and rough areas next to agricultural lands. These are more likely to be found in the eastern parts of our state.
The reintroduction of wild turkeys in Colorado has proved so successful that CPW has increased hunting licenses to help manage turkey populations, because, in some areas, they have actually been thriving too well. Wild turkey now live in 53 of our state’s 63 counties. Colorado’s program ranks among the most successful species conservation efforts in CPW’s history.
Their burgeoning numbers do not mean that you can hunt the wild turkeys that you spot in your neighbor’s backyard. They do require a permit and can only be hunted in designated area.
The CPW hunting guide for turkeys points out that wild turkeys are wary enough that you can seldom come upon them by surprise. They recommend that you scout out a good spot and use turkey calls to lure them to you.
It is the domestic turkeys that have given rise to some of the derogatory use of the name. Any bird, like the domesticated turkey, that can drown by looking upward during a rain storm, perhaps, deserves a bad name (and to be the central part of Thanksgiving dinner), but not the unique, resilient and crafty wild turkey.