Wild turkeys were a common sight where I grew
up in Northern Illinois. Once during my
childhood my mother had a friend that moved there from Germany. She had never seen turkeys before. One morning a gang of turkeys showed up
outside of her home. Terrified she
called the police and reported that horrible small dinosaurs were surrounding
her house and she was afraid to leave her home.
That really happened. My brother and I still remind each other of that
story every time we see a turkey and it still cracks me up.
Fossil records for the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, date back over 5
million years and not much has changed in their appearance. They really do have
quite a prehistoric look to them. They
are members of the Phasianadae
family, the same as pheasants and grouse, and are native to the Americas.
Turkeys, and also the Muscovy duck, are the only American native birds to have
been domesticated. After the bald
eagle, turkeys are probably the most iconic American bird; it was once even suggested
by Benjamin Franklin that the turkey be the national bird! (Benjamin Franklin
also proposed that the rattlesnake be used to represent the country.) Turkeys were
such a popular game bird that they were in danger of becoming extinct in the
wild during the early part of the 20th century. Reintroduction programs during the 1940s were
successful in bringing the turkey back from the brink. Today wild turkeys have
a conservation status of least concern, LC.
Turkeys are one of the animals that the naturalists
get asked about most by visitors to Effie Yeaw.
A common question is what to do if a turkey becomes aggressive. It’s a
funny question I think, but it is a real concern for some trail walkers. For those who worry about turkey attacks;
first: do not play dead, second: carry a hiking stick and no, it’s not to whack
the turkey with! Hold the hiking stick out in front of you and force the turkey
to stay at a distance. This method seems to work well. I like to joke about the danger of turkey
attacks, but they really are tough birds. Turkeys have been known to tear
rattlesnakes to pieces when encountering them in the wild!
Turkeys are a common and iconic sight at Effie
Yeaw. The preserve wouldn’t be the same without them. The naturalists at Effie
Yeaw do a lot of scat and track activities during day camps and also with
school groups. The turkeys are quite
helpful during these activities in that their scat and track is one of the most
reliable to find on the trails and one of the easier ones for the kids to
identify. The lines their wings leave in
the dirt while they are strutting their stuff on the trails also adds story to
the find. Did you know you can identify
whether the scat was left by a male or female turkey based on appearance? Females
leave the swirling soft-serve looking lump and the males leave a more
cylindrical shape ending in a “J”.