By Diana Dunn
As spring spreads throughout the Bay Area, male turkeys are starting to show off their coppery tail feathers. The males, also known as gobblers, show off their iridescent feathers from February to April to catch the eyes of their less metallic female counterparts. Most of the time, with the help of their 5,000 to 6,000 feathers, they succeed. If a breeding male has put on a good enough performance, this gobbler can usually convince two to three hens he’s a good mate. But, by late March male turkeys make a hasty exit from the bird scene and hens take center stage.
March marks the beginning of egg season. With no help whatsoever from the flashy gobblers, females start looking for a place to nest. Hens will lay their clutch of four to 13 eggs in a depression on the ground with semi-vegetated surroundings, which camouflages their drab plumage. After females incubate their eggs for 28 days their first offspring, or poults, begin to hatch. Once the hen and her poults venture out from their nest, they will not return.
The mother hen wastes no time in teaching her offspring how to scratch, pick, and dig for tidbits like seeds and insects. After a few days, poults are able to feed themselves, and by 10 days they can fly to roost on low hanging branches. The mother hen uses her incredible eyesight during the day to keep her brood safe from predators, and will use her ability to run up to 15mph to threaten and attack intruders during the night. By fall, all of the poults will be less vulnerable–weighing between five to 10 pounds– and will remain with their mother until the following spring.
The dazzling drama of the lives of turkeys seems to be an increasingly common site in Bay Area communities. However, in the early 1930s wild turkey populations became extremely threatened due to habitat loss and overhunting. Early pioneers harvested and cleared forest, prime turkey habitat, as they pushed further west. Turkey was also a staple in pioneers’ diets, and these game birds were hunted continually. By the 1940s, concerned groups were fearful that wild turkeys would disappear completely.
The deflating population was rehabilitated through passing of the Pittman-Robertson Act, which is a tax that is incurred when purchasing ammunition or a sporting arm. This tax helps fund a capturing program that was implemented by wildlife biologists. The captured wild turkeys were transported to areas throughout the U.S. where suitable habitat was still intact, and populations quickly grew and flourished. Turkeys, which were originally found in only 39 states, can now be found in all contiguous 48 states.
Turkeys are heralded as a wonderful example of a successful wildlife restoration effort; however, I think they are a better example of how humans making daily decisions have a dramatic effect on their local environment. The small, day-to-day choices we all make add up and have a collective impact. Think about the myriad creatures, flashy and drab, that you impact by what you eat, the products you purchase, and the hobbies you choose. Keeping our watersheds clean and healthy for all living creatures is an important aim, and if you don’t do it for yourself or your family, do it for the wild turkeys.
This piece is dedicated to the Richmond Field Station’s own gobbler, Rex, who passed away two weeks ago.