COLUMN: Wild turkey trivia

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     Here we go – it’s almost Thanksgiving yet again. I thought many of you might like a little wild turkey trivia for your Thanksgiving get together. Here is an article I wrote four years ago to refresh your turkey savvy for the holiday.

     How much do you really know about one of our traditional holiday entrees? I know many of us eat the farm raised version but the wild turkey was the original.

     Iowa’s wild turkeys are rather large birds measuring 3-4 feet in length – with a 5-foot wingspan. Although big birds, they are definitely not yellow! Males, called “gobblers” or “toms” can weigh up to 30 pounds. Females, called “hens”, are usually smaller, weighing around 8-12 pounds. Maybe you already knew that, but did you know that a young male turkey with a short beard and small spurs is called  a ”jake” and a young female, in turn, is called a “jenny?” Newly hatched turkeys are called poults.

     When we think of the typical Thanksgiving turkey we envision a “tom” turkey, which usually adorns Thanksgiving images. Tom turkeys are easily recognized by their long floppy snood, which hangs over their beak, a wattle, made up of bumpy red fleshy carnuncles under their neck, black hair-like feathers hanging down from their chest, called a beard, and a hard triangular spur, on the back of each leg. They are usually pictured strutting with their tail fanned out and wings dragging on the ground. Handsome sights to be sure!

     A wild turkey’s home territory can range from 200 to 2000 acres depending on the habitat available. They prefer wooded areas with scattered openings, and Eastern Iowa’s rolling landscape is prime turkey habitat. They will search their home range for ferns, grasses, buds, wild fruit, corn, beans, mushrooms, seeds, and nuts to eat. But did you know that wild turkeys are not just vegetarians they will also eat insects, small snakes, frogs, and mice, if given the opportunity?

     Most of us know that wild turkeys are social birds and prefer to roost, travel, and feed in groups of 6 to 40. But did you know that often times these groups consist of an older hen or two and their offspring? Adult males will sometimes join these flocks or will hang together in loose bachelor groups.

     Hunters know that wild turkeys have excellent hearing and keen vision. The slightest sound or movement will usually send them running or flying for cover. Yes, wild turkeys can fly! In fact they can fly at speeds up to 55 mph, although they don’t usually fly very far before heading for dense cover. They even sleep/roost in trees at night to stay safe from nocturnal predators.

     Turkeys have been used by people as a food source for thousands of years and are still hunted today. Iowa has hunting seasons on wild turkeys in the fall and spring. A special turkey tag is required to harvest a wild turkey.

     Hunters of the past and today have found ways to use almost every part of the turkey. Turkey bones can be transformed into flutes, fish hooks, needles, awls, and even turkey calls. Wing feathers make excellent fletching on an arrow shaft. Turkey feathers were and still are used as quill pens, to decorate clothing and hats, and even to paint on. If you find a turkey feather while hiking feel free to pick it up and see what you can do!

     Today turkeys are a common sight, but did you know that wild turkeys were almost completely extirpated (gone) from the state of Iowa by the 1900s? Luckily wildlife laws, increased habitat, and reintroduction efforts by the Iowa DNR in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s proved extremely successful. Today wild turkeys can be found in virtually every county in the state. To catch a glimpse of a flock of local turkeys, hit the back roads and look along the wooded field edges where turkeys like to feed or take a drive around Central Park.

     I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the season of the turkey!



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