“You turkey!” Those words are not a compliment. You are dumb! Stupid! Like that dumb turkey.
I once asked a farmer, “How dumb is a barnyard turkey?” She told me that a barnyard turkey is so dumb that it will stand in a pouring rain, with its head up and beak open - and drown. If she wasn’t joshing this city-bred transplant, then I have to agree that barnyard turkeys are astonishingly dumb.
The domestic turkey and the Wild Turkey are the same species, Meleagris gallopavo. A distinctively American bird, its scientific name is derived from the Latin names for an African guinea fowl and and Asiatic bird. The occasional domestic turkey which might wander off can be distinguished from its wild relative by the white tail tip of the original Mexican subspecies from which it was domesticated. Wild turkeys have chestnut-brown tail tips. They are also thinner than domestic turkeys.
The male Wild Turkey (called a tom, or a gobbler) is about four feet long, the female (hen) about three. The breast feathers of the male have black tips; those of the female are brown. The tom’s head and neck are blue-gray with pink wattles. During spring display, his forehead is white, face bright blue, and neck scarlet.
Turkeys usually travel on the ground by walking or running. In spite of what sometimes appears to be a reluctance to fly, and an awkwardness when airborne, they are remarkably strong flyers. Flight speed has been timed at 32-42 miles per hour on one occasion, and 55 miles per hour on another. They typically roost overnight in tall trees.
Courtship and breeding begins in late February in the southern states, in early April in the North. Toms may gobble in any season, but in early spring, any loud noise may stimulate gobbling - an airplane roaring overhead, the hooting of an owl, or the slamming of car door. Gobbling may be heard a mile away. Spring gobbling season is triggered by the increasing day length and warming temperature.
In the Spring, the gobbler gobbles to attract a female. Once he has attracted one - or preferably, several - hens to his vicinity, the gobbler does his courtship display. He struts around the hen. His tail is fanned and held vertically. His wings are lowered and drag on the ground. He raises the feathers of his back, throws his head back onto his back, and inflates his crop. He makes deep “chump” sounds, then hums while rapidly vibrating his tail feathers. During the strut his facial skin engorges and the colors intensify. In the presence of the big, wily old tom who knows the strut, the hen swoons and her resistance vanishes.
Having done the deed, he gobbles and struts for the next hen. Toward the end of mating season the harem breaks up, the hens wander off by themselves to complete the task of raising a brood, with no further assistance, care, attention, or concern from the self-important gobbler. The nest consists of a shallow excavation scratched into the earth then hastily lined with leaves and other forest-floor debris. But even if they're slovenly builders, wild turkey hens always conceal their nests carefully, and cover their eggs with debris each time they leave the area to feed. A single hen often lays over a dozen eggs, and several hens may share one nest. (Audubon reported finding 42 eggs in a single nest, with three hens in attendance.) The incubation period is 28 days, with a hatch success rate of 35%.
The poults can walk and feed themselves when they hatch, but cannot fly for about two weeks. Clearly this whole period is fraught with great danger and vulnerability for the mother, her eggs and her young. The list of predators is long: raccoons, red foxes, striped skunks, crows, snakes, opossums, chipmunks, squirrels, owls, hawks. We are most likely to see turkeys fleeing, but a nesting or brooding hen will not hesitate to attack a predator threatening her eggs or her young.
Franklin correctly described the character of the Wild Turkey. The sum of it is - a Wild Turkey is no turkey, except in the mind of some turkeys!