It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time that I went searching for turkeys. I don’t remember the year, but this is how you know it was a long time ago. I was reacting to a rare bird alert that was recorded weekly on the Maine Audubon answering machine, which used real magnetic tape. It reported that there had been turkey sightings near a particular interstate exit.
This was before instant email alerts — in fact, it was before email. It was before cellphones. Most importantly, it was before the highway exits were renumbered, because I confused the location and went searching in Lincoln when I should have been exploring Gray.
And, of course, this was when the wild turkey was nearly nonexistent in Maine.
A lot happened between the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving in 1621 and the reintroduction of turkeys to Maine in 1977. At one time, it had been the primary game bird in North America. But unregulated hunting and habitat loss drove the numbers dangerously low and wiped them out entirely over much of their range.
Here’s where I need to be careful. Kelsey Sullivan is the game bird biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He’ll be presenting a program on Maine’s wild turkeys at the Fields Pond Audubon Center at 7 p.m. Thursday. I don’t want to give away the surprise ending, so I won’t say much about the reasons there is now a turkey behind every bush in Maine. Kelsey can tell you that Thursday.
It’s enough to know that legal hunting resumed in 1986. There were 500 hunting permits issued that year and only nine turkeys were bagged.
Turkeys are exclusive to the New World. The ocellated wild turkey is an oddball species, inhabiting a large portion of southern Mexico. The remaining turkeys are the species familiar to us, although even they are divided into five subspecies. There are distinctly different populations in Florida, southern Texas along the Rio Grande, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico and in some of the mountain regions of the West. The eastern wild turkey is the most widely distributed.
It was such an important food source for Native Americans that they intentionally burned down small patches of forest, creating meadows and food resources for the birds.
The domestic turkey is decidedly different from the wild turkey, but it was not always thus. In the early 1500s, the Spanish brought turkeys to Europe. The turkey and the Muscovy duck are the only domesticated fowl originating in the New World. But the original domesticated turkeys were likely transported from Mexico. That subspecies featured white tail tips, unlike the wild turkeys with which we are familiar today. Our wild turkeys have brown tail tips. Centuries later, the differences remain.
Though you can’t tell once it’s plucked and roasted at 350 degrees, your Thanksgiving turkey this year did not go through life with brown tail tips. Indeed, most domestic turkeys are now completely white because the brown coloration has been completely bred out of them for cosmetic reasons. White pin feathers are less visible on a fully dressed bird.
You’ve probably seen the male turkey strutting his stuff in springtime — fanning his tail and looking self-important. The ritual begins when the turkeys are still gathered in wintering flocks. His head and neck are brightly colored in mating season and, in fact, the color can change with the turkey’s mood. The whiter the head and neck, the more excited he is.
Soon, his job is done. Toms take no part in raising the chicks. In fact, within a few days of hatching, the youngsters are able to forage on their own, following mom around mostly for protection. There is safety in numbers and multiple broods will band together, which is why flocks near roadsides seem surprisingly big.
Turkeys reduce the threat from predators by roosting in trees, but it takes at least five weeks before the poult is able to fly up there. Once they make it that far, the average lifespan is 10 years.
So as you sit down to a holiday dinner, consider the rise and fall and rise again of the wild turkey. Ponder its humble origins and its eventual elevation to meal centerpiece. Recall that in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the Cratchit family was going to have to settle for the poor man’s meal of goose before Ebenezer offered them a meal of turkey.
See you Thursday.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.