Most often, the traditional star of holiday meals in the United States is the domestic turkey. Interestingly, this bird is only one of two wild bird species native to North America (the other is Muscovy Duck) that have been bred specifically for human consumption. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were first domesticated in Mexico, and then exported to Europe. European settlers brought domesticated turkeys back to the New World, but would also hunt the wild birds they found. Currently, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in North America, a pretty astounding fact when they were almost extinct by the 1930s due to overhunting and deforestation of their preferred habitat.
Adult wild turkeys are large birds with long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs, with each foot having three toes in front and a shorter, rear-facing toe in back. Their body feathers are generally blackish to dark brown, with a coppery sheen that becomes more pronounced in mature males. The toms or gobblers, as the males are called, have a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles on both the throat and neck. The long, fleshy object hanging over the male's beak is called a ‘snood’, and the tail feathers are all one length. Juvenile males are called jakes, and they have shorter wattles and a tail fan with longer feathers in the middle. Males also have a spur behind each of their lower legs, which they use when fighting. Wild turkeys show a strong sexual dimorphism, with the males being significantly larger than the females or hens. The hens have duller feathers overall, mainly in shades of brown and gray. Young females are called jennies, and the very young of both sexes are called poults.
In Japanese and Korean, the turkey is called 'shichimencho' and 'chilmyeonjo' respectively, both of which translate to 'seven-faced bird.' This reflects the ability of the male wild turkey to change the color of its facial skin and wattles in a matter of seconds due to excitement or emotion. While the birds' head color can range from red to pink to white to blue, certain changes represent certain moods. When the male is excited his head turns blue, and when he is ready to fight it turns red.
Unlike their domestic counterparts and despite their weight, wild turkeys are agile fliers. While their powerful legs can get them running up to 25 mph, their top speed in flight is 55 mph. In their ideal habitat of open woodland or wooded grasslands, they fly beneath the canopy top and sleep up in trees. They can live an average of 3-5 years in the wild, eating a varied diet that includes grains, insects, berries, and even small reptiles. Their daytime vision is three times better than a human's and they see in color, but they have poor vision at night.
There are 6 different subspecies of wild turkey in North America, showing differences in coloration, habitat, and behavior. In our region, the Rio Grande Wild Turkey (M. g. intermedia) is dominant, naturally ranging through Texas to Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oregon. Having slightly longer legs than other subspecies, it is better adapted to a prairie habitat, with a more greenish-coppery sheen and buff-colored feathers on the tail tips and lower back. This subspecies prefers brushy areas near streams or rivers, and forests of scrub oak, pine, and mesquite.
Either way you slice it, as you celebrate the holidays this year, reflect on the wonders of the 'seven-faced bird,' appreciate their history with humans, and keep an eye out for wild wattle and snood!