Monday, August 12, 2019

Wild Turkeys -- summer

by Rain Trueax

Living on  little ranch in the Oregon Coast Range, we have wildlife as our neighbors. Sometimes that's worrisome like coyotes with sheep. Other times, it's such a blessing. Such is with the wild turkeys that live part of the year in our yard and pastures. I learned a bit about them out of curiosity as to how they fit into history.

In Oregon, they don't. It is claimed that the first wild turkeys were introduced here in 1961. I thought maybe they'd been over hunted as they had other places but apparently no evidence to show that they were ever here. They were elsewhere in the United States and have played a role in even stories about pioneers and Native Americans.

Of the four subspecies of turkeys, we have two in Oregon. The Merriam's wild turkeys were the first. They were live-trapped in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Montana. Today, it's believed that they hybridized with Rio Grande
wild turkeys brought to southwestern Oregon in 1975. They were native to riparian zones and scrub woodlands from the southern Great Plains into northeastern Mexico. They flourish in places like our ranch land here in the Coast Range.  
In researching, I learned wild turkeys evolved more than 11 million years ago although probably not exactly as they are today.  There are five subspecies of wild turkeys with different ranges and feathers. 

Ancient civilizations, like the Aztecs revered the birds and held religious festivals twice a
year. They thought the turkey was a bird manifestation of one of their gods-- a trickster. In the Mayan and Aztec culture, turkey feathers were used to adorn jewelry, clothing and headdresses. Although they regarded the turkey as of spiritual significance, they did also eat them. Navajos, in the American Southwest, penned wild turkeys to fatten them. 
In pagan and nature based religions, the turkey represents spirituality and Earth Mother. The red wattle, which is that flap of skin that originates from the forehead and is seen on the toms, is said to represent the energy center of intuition. 

The stories of them with the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving are well known. Maybe less so is that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird. He considered the proud, adaptable turkey superior to the eagle, whom he had little use for.

Most of the West had turkeys and then they were nearly hunted to extinction along with their natural habitat being reduced. It was time for an intervention and that was begun as hunting was limited to seasons and the birds were moved into areas, like Oregon, where they had never been. 

We had long seen them around us but two years ago is the first time that they began to raise their broods here where it's a natural habitat for them with the oaks and meadow like pastures. 

Some think of them like domestic turkeys, but they are not. Domestication takes a lot out of any animal. Wild turkeys have a wide variety of sounds they make to call each other, fight, or just express enjoyment. To hear them outside is one of the more enjoyable part of my life here in Oregon. 

Most often, we see the toms and hens together with the chicks but they are not monogamous birds. It's about the community. A tom may mate with several females but the hens only with one. They lay about twelve eggs, one egg a day for two weeks. The hens sit on the nest until the eggs hatch after four weeks. She stays there to protect those babies from all that would eat the eggs. 

When the poults hatch, they are up inside of a day. They must walk to find food as this isn't like the birds that can feed their young. The job of the flock is to get the young to food sources. Until the chicks get their flying feathers, they are vulnerable on the ground to snakes and other predators. Turkeys can be very aggressive and don't have spurs on their legs for nothing. One year, Ranch Boss watched a sad story as a hawk was attacking a chick that appeared crippled. The hen fought with him but the battle was hers to lose.

Something many don't know is adult wild turkeys fly quite well. They roost in trees as soon as their babies have enough feathers to fly. Ours here roost about 40 or 50 feet up. To hear them take off for their big branches is like a whirl of wind. They come down with less noise. The sounds in the trees range from gobble gobble to tweets and almost purring sounds. 

They generally will not stay one place for long. Even though we put out some grain for sheep and birds, they never linger but always move on. I expect them to not stay on the farm here although they get along quite well with the sheep. Both like the grains from tall grasses and what drops off the hay bales. It appears we have four flocks with varying ages of chicks. Earlier as the chicks were growing, it seemed the toms hung with the flock for protection. Now, they are hanging more together than with the hens and chicks. 

We have taken a lot of photos but haven't had much luck in capturing the sounds they make. They are very defensive and if you watch them in a flock, some will be looking behind and some ahead for predators.

What I have seen besides photos are a LOT of feathers. I don't know why they drop so
many, but they seem to be most heavily below where they roost. I am trying to figure out if I can use these in any productive way. Someone told me it's illegal to keep any feathers, even from game birds. I need to do some research on this. The striped ones look like many Native American headdresses, where they suggest eagle feathers. Some say their feathers have spiritual significance.

This week, when I had to deliver a message to Ranch Boss at the barns, walking down the gravel and dirt road, there were two hens ahead of me, without their chicks. As Ranch Boss
approached from the other barn side, the hens saw they had a problem. They ran toward him, then looked back at me. I was standing still. I knew that soon they'd have to choose to fly, something they prefer not doing. First one, then the other took to the air, very cool to watch and part of the joy of living with wildlife.
They are hunted in Oregon in two seasons-- spring and fall. I guess it's a popular sport, but nobody better try shooting the ones on our land. This is a sanctuary. :) They are not as afraid of us anymore, but they still run when we approach, which is good. Not all humans can be trusted. 

All photos are from our Oregon home from June to August.


  1. When we lived in a rural area, there was a flock of wild turkeys in an area of trees and tall grass. The person on whose land it was, hunted them. I hope his family ate them and that he wasn't just sport hunting. This post is very interesting.

  2. In researching them, I saw that turkey hunting is growing in popularity in Oregon. I can't imagine doing it, but we may need no hunting signs for our place to protect them if they stay on our land when the fall season arrives.

  3. We have the generic wild turkeys in Massachusetts. The last one was killed on Mt. Tom in 1824, but since then, they're been reintroduced, and now I have turkeys coming to my back yard, probably because I feed them. The toms come all the time, but the hens with their poults, who live at the end of the street, only come sometimes. They do let us come close, but not too close, which is fine. I see the way they peck each other. I don't want anyone pecking me. All those feathers you see are from the summer molt, when they lose their feathers and grow new ones. Feathers don't last forever, and they have to replace them once a year. I like turkeys. I just wish they would splat up in the woods and not in my back yard. :)

  4. thanks for the very interesting post. Isn't amazing that they can get those big bodies airborne and roost in trees. Sadly, don't see any around here anymore.

  5. I live in Fort Worth, but I used to see wild turkeys occasionally in a thicket of trees near the river. Probably gone with the human population boom, sadly. It was always so neat to see them.

  6. Wow, this is so interesting and so informative, Thank you so very much for this wonderful post and all the beautiful pictures ! About 5 years ago we had a flock of about 15 turkeys of different sizes walking on the streets of our little town here which is pretty much desert, but it is a regular little town paved streets and all that, it was just so different seeing all those turkey all together and walking on the street and even going to peoples front yards. They somehow left and we haven't seen them since, i guess and I am hoping that they all flew off to a safer place for them. Have a Great week. God bless you. And you keep on protecting the flocks of turkeys that go to your homes sanctuary for them.

  7. Thanks for all the comments on a love of turkeys. There really is something about them. The more time I spend around them, the more I appreciate all of their calls. They can't all stay here though as we can't support that many turkeys; so they will move on and hopefully survive the predators that want to also enjoy them-- in a different way :)


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