Curious Nature: Now we’re talking turkey
Vail, CO Colorado
What is known as “turkey time” is right around the corner again – a time for families and friends to celebrate all things they are thankful for, usually gathering around a table piled high with white and dark meat from our favorite holiday avian species, the turkey. Right here in Colorado, we have some species of wild turkey that are interesting animals that few realize are close by.
This author’s special respect for wild-turkey species grew tremendously during a camping trip several years back when he stumbled out of his tent to find a bathroom spot. In his walk through the pitch-black, moonless night, he walked under a tree where a dozen turkeys happened to be roosting unbeknownst. Spooking these turkeys caused all dozen to take flight simultaneously. The sudden noise of flight from a dozen 15- to 20-pound birds circling at all sides when you’re half asleep and the mind isn’t processing data at normal speeds leads to a new level of fright not previously realized. Once the flutter of turkey wings finally subsided and I removed myself from the fetal position, I stumbled back to my tent with a new appreciation for the large bird that is best known for its appearance at Thanksgiving dinner.
Here in the mountains of Colorado, those lucky enough to encounter one can see the Merriam’s Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami). In North America, we have six specific breeds of turkey and a few hybrids, but in Colorado, we only see the Merriam’s and the Rio Grande. The Merriam’s thrives in the mountain regions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Washington. Known for its darker coloration with reflections of blue, purple and bronze in its feathers, Merriam’s Wild Turkey is distinguishable by a white rump.
As with all species in nature, survival isn’t a guarantee. Merriam’s Wild Turkey has a few special adaptations that help with its plight through the juvenile stage and into adulthood. Once in adulthood, predation becomes much less likely and survival more secure. Initially, a young turkey, or poult, is protected by the mother hen through communication. These lines of communication are established even before the poult breaks free from the egg. The incubation of a clutch of eggs takes 26 to 28 days. The hatching process begins with pipping, or the poult rotating inside of the egg prior to breaking free. Once the hen hears the pipping, she begins to vocalize a soft cluck at random, to imprint her voice to the poults. Poults that recognize this clucking early are more likely to survive to adulthood. The clucking becomes the warning sign for the new offspring, and adhering to the warning raises survival rates.
The poults also mature quickly. They begin following the hen away from the nest as early as 12 hours after hatching. By the second day, the poults are performing most of the mature characteristics the hen has demonstrated for them, such as feeding, ground movement and grooming. By their second week of life, they can fly short distances, and by their third, they can begin to roost in low branches of trees. Once they are able to be off the ground in roosts, survival greatly increases. As long as a steady diet of grasses, nuts and insects is available, the opportunistic omnivore we know as the turkey can continue growing into adulthood. Once full grown, evasion of predators becomes easier, since adult turkeys can run as fast as 25 mph and fly at 55 mph.
The turkeys in our area tend to move to lower elevation once the snow starts flying, so seeing them this time of year proves difficult. But during the summer here in the Eagle Valley, a fortunate wildlife observer might come across a turkey. The place to look is in undisturbed forests mixed with open areas that the turkeys seek out for feeding. These places tend to be free of development, overgrazing or timber harvesting.
As you enjoy the holiday and some turkey on your table, be thankful for this hardy bird that calls Colorado home and for the biodiversity all around us in this beautiful area.
Travis Long is an educator with Walking Mountains Science Center. Located in Avon, the center is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free to the public. We will be closed Nov. 24 to 26 in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday.