Appearances can be sometimes be deceiving. Scratching under a backyard bird feeder or dusting in a dirt driveway, the wild turkey may seem like little more than a very overgrown chicken. Pecking at his reflection in your chrome bumper or menacing pets and children, Old Tom might make you consider him dull-witted and a nuisance. Before you judge this book by its feathery cover, however, it would be wise to know a little more about this remarkable bird.
Its nearly naked head and neck might seem some unfortunate joke played by its designers, especially when compared to the resplendent red and green of the gaudy ring-necked pheasant, or even the subtle camouflage and crest of the ruffed grouse. Rather than a glamorous game bird, it more closely resembles the carrion-eating vulture that corrupted its name.
However, everything in nature has a purpose. When in relaxed mode, the tom’s head and face are the pale blue-gray of an almost clear sky above a thin veil of overcast, and its neck an earthy brick red. When excited by a rival or potential mate, the male turkey shows his colors, pumping blood to the exposed flesh until its head becomes a bright white, its face a deep azure and its neck a rich crimson. Perhaps that is why Ben Franklin allegedly petitioned to make the wild turkey our national bird.
From the middle of his chest, like the necktie of a handsome gentleman, hangs a long beard of hair-like modified feathers. While its exact purpose is not clearly understood, it undoubtedly serves as a visual stimulus to a potential mate. During intimate moments, it also caresses the head of a hen, possibly providing some tactile stimulation as well.
The same might also be true of its snood. Even the name of this fleshy appendage that dangles off the tom’s forehead like melting wax or an elephant’s trunk is curiously odd. When the tom is feeding or going about other daily routines its snood is barely more than a bump, like the horn of a young rhino. When courting it grows longer, almost as long as the bird’s neck. It seems as much of a nuisance as a teenager’s un-trimmed bangs, but again, nothing in nature is frivolous and its dangling may provide just the right touch to ensure that mating is fruitful.
Then there’s that tail fan. When not needed for courting it’s folded neatly up in the rear, where it may act as a rudder as the bird wings through its forested environs, or provide better balance when perched on a limb. When strutting, the tom spreads it out, perhaps to make himself look larger, or focus the female’s attention toward its center and that brightly colored head. The whole bird looks bigger as contour feathers are simultaneously erected out and away from the body.
Old Tom may seem a bit of a dandy with his brightly colored head, dapper necktie and hoop dress plumage, but he’s as much a fighter as a lover. His arsenal includes spurs on the back of each leg that grow longer and sharper with age, and can inflict severe damage. Those powerful wings that are capable of propelling his rather large body for moderate flights can also inflict solid blows in battle. In close combat, rival males wrestle with necks entwined like snakes.
He may seem quite silly at times, like a dinosaur in a dress trying to run toward a potential mate without breaking strut, but those strong legs can push him faster than man and most any beast, and launch him into flight if needed. Even those beady black eyes are marvels of nature. Working in concert with a walnut-sized brain, they can perceive the slightest movement or the subtlest color in a full 360-degree range with a minimal turn of the head. Meanwhile, tiny openings on the side of his head funnel audio waves to ears sensitive enough to pinpoint the source of a sound several hundred yards away.
Even the turkey’s behavior can be quite misleading. They’ve learned to seek food and refuge around the trappings of man, at times becoming a bit of a nuisance. That’s only when they enter our domain. When we enter theirs, as hunters, turkeys are an entirely different bird with senses and survival instincts honed over eons for predator avoidance. Sometimes we succeed but more often than not it is they who are the victors and we the vanquished, which is what keeps us going back.
All things considered, the wild turkey truly is a magnificent bird.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]