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November 20, 2020

When celebrating Thanksgiving with your family this year, remember that the turkey is not just the main course, but, as Benjamin Franklin said, it’s also a noble fowl deeply rooted in American tradition. 

Benjamin Franklin was quite fond of turkeys. How do we know? Well, in one well-publicized case, the founding father was so disappointed that the bald eagle was chosen the country’s national bird that he wrote a letter in 1784 to his daughter, Sarah Bache, disparaging the choice.  

wild turkeys in Texas
Male and female wild turkeys seen in Texas.

In Benjamin Franklin’s famous letter he complained that people’s fondness for the eagle was misplaced and that the turkey was “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America...He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”  

Today this very same nation continues to honor this bird as the symbol of a plentiful feast, gratitude and prosperity. And of course, every year on the morning of Thanksgiving, one special turkey is invited to the White House for an official presidential pardon. 

USGS likes turkeys, too! Wild ones, that is. The USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units in Alabama, Mississippi, New York and Pennsylvania  have conducted research on the forestry practices of native wild turkeys across the United States. 

These and other USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units support natural resource management decisions through research, education, and technical assistance. The Units, established in 1935, enhance graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences and aid important research between natural resource agencies and universities. 

Turkey Research 

Because of restoration efforts of wild turkey species over the past 75 years, turkeys are now found nearly everywhere they occurred when the Pilgrims arrived. These restoration efforts have been supported by funds from the  Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. 

“Research in Mississippi has centered on providing management agencies and the public with reliable information on landscape-level aspects influencing wild turkeys and tools to manage their populations,” says Francisco J. Vilella, a USGS research scientist at the Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. 

Angela Fuller, a USGS research scientist at the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, echoes Vilella, “Today, research on turkeys is not about restoring populations, but doing a better job of managing them for society.”  

In Pennsylvania, turkeys occur everywhere — from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the most remote state forests. Turkeys are an important game species to sportsmen and wild turkeys are often the star at many a Thanksgiving dinner in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. 

“Research in New York and Pennsylvania helps ensure a sustainable population of turkeys for hunter harvest and opportunities for all citizens to view and enjoy wild turkeys,” says Duane Diefenbach, a USGS research scientist at the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. 

In addition, researchers at the Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are conducting a long-term research project for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to inform management of the state’s eastern wild turkey populations. 

A Turkey’s Feast

A strutting wild male turkey
A strutting wild male turkey.

Although the turkey is typically the main course of one of the most filling American meals of the year, turkeys themselves have a pretty filling diet of plants and small animals. These large birds forage for food on the ground where they feast on acorns, nuts, berries, insects, lizards, salamanders and snakes. To digest this varied diet, turkeys have an organ called a gizzard that acts as a muscular chewer or food crusher. They also consume small stones or pebbles to help the gizzard do its work. 

Dressing the Turkey 

Similar to other birds, the male turkey has fancier plumage, or feather pattern than the female. The male birds’ feathers have beautiful hues of red and blue, which they display to attract females. In addition to different-colored breast feathers, male turkeys exhibit a long “beard” (which are actually special feathers) growing from the center of their chest. 

Breeding and Harvest Seasons 

Fall and spring are the two harvest seasons for the wild turkey in many states. Though both seasons are carefully monitored by state wildlife agencies, the fall harvest can affect population trends because both males and females can be harvested – only males are legally hunted in the spring. The numbers of females that survive to breed and rear young are critical to whether a turkey population expands or shrinks. Fortunately, there are more turkeys today than there were even one hundred years ago. 

USGS researchers in New York and Pennsylvania have developed models to help managers make effective, science-based decisions for fall wild turkey-hunting seasons.  Diefenbach noted that because New York and Pennsylvania are affected by similar wild turkey management issues, the two states joined forces in tackling management issues such as how changes in the length of fall hunting season affect the harvest.  

“Understanding the effect on hunter harvest by changing the season’s length by one week will help state wildlife agencies make better decisions when it comes to setting hunting regulations,” said Diefenbach. 

In another USGS study, researchers in Mississippi examined how weather conditions in the northern and southern portions of the state influenced spring gobbling behavior of wild turkeys and how this related to the hunting season. Other studies used information collected by turkey hunters and biologists from state and federal agencies to develop tools for predicting statewide gobbling activity. 

Habitat and Range 

A wild turkey’s range – the habitat they regularly use -- is roughly 400-2,000 acres (0.5 to 3.0 square miles), and the bird can cover up to 2 miles per hour while feeding. Typically, a wild turkey requires three types of habitat to survive: a nesting habitat, a brooding habitat where young turkeys are raised, and a winter habitat, all with an abundant food source. 

Female wild turkey with chicks
Female wild turkey with chicks.

Turkey hens begin to nest before new plant growth begins in the spring and require residual cover from the previous years to protect their young from predators. Nesting habitats generally consist of low brush that obstructs visibility between the ground and about 3 feet high. In woodland areas, turkeys will nest at the base of trees, by fallen logs and boulders and by any other physical feature that may provide additional concealment. 

Brooding habitats need to be sufficient for newly hatched turkeys to grow and develop well. These areas consist of mainly grass and small plants, which typically provide abundant insects for the young to eat. In addition, brooding habitats are ideally located near brushy and wooded areas to be used for escape cover and roosting overnight. The ideal habitats for developing juvenile turkeys are orchards or groves of trees that are spaced widely enough for sunlight and are mowed only once or twice yearly. 

A good winter habitat depends on an abundant food source, thermal covering for roosting and protected travel corridors. Places where ground water comes to the surface are ideal because they not only provide drinking water, but they help melt the snow, giving turkeys access to the plant and animal life buried beneath it. Conifer trees and shrubs also provide covered travel corridors for turkey flocks to navigate warmly and safely through the land. 

Birds of a Feather Flock Together 

Here’s a little bit of trivia to share with your family this holiday - a group of turkeys is called a “rafter.” So, this Thanksgiving, when celebrating and giving thanks, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but as Benjamin Franklin did so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition. 

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