Loss of Turkeys from New England
Fifty years ago, seeing wild turkeys was a rare and exciting event. The birds had been extirpated from most New England states, including Connecticut in the 1800s as a result of unrestricted hunting and habitat loss. Elsewhere in the Northeast, they had either been eliminated or became extremely wary after being hunted by farmers and subsistence hunters, and disappeared when hikers appeared – even in states in which they were still surviving. Today, turkeys are common across the Northeast except in extremely urban areas of our cities. Yet one stopped traffic in 2014 when it was observed casually strolling down a major road on Staten Island, a borough of New York City.
According to the Connecticut Wildlife Agency, turkeys were reestablished in Connecticut when Connecticut obtained 22 wild turkeys from New York State in 1975 and released them in the northwestern corner of the state. Since then all of the towns in the state have developed thriving populations and there are an estimated 30,000 turkeys now living in Connecticut. According to the Connecticut website, Massachusetts obtained several wild turkeys from Connecticut to successfully reestablish its turkey population. Although now very common and often seen in backyards, most people still get a thrill when they find them along a forest trail.
Turkey Mating Behavior
Toms gather in bands and strut in front of aggregations of nonchalant hens. Males in a group are usually brothers and display communally to attract females into the harem.
Who are the Fathers
Alan Krakauer showed that only one male in a group fathers the offspring. Why should his brothers bother to help? One possible answer is that by helping their brother mate, they increase the number of offspring produced by their family – a behavior known as kin selection. Without helpers, a single tom has no chance to reproduce.
Raising the Poults
Nests are placed directly on the ground and unguarded nests and sitting hens are preyed on by dogs, coyotes, raccoons, and great horned owls. When the poults (young) are able to fly (about 28 days), the hens bring the poults together into creches of up to fifty or more poults and six to ten hens – some of which have no offspring. Creches provide hens the benefit of having more adults to watch the young, search for predators and for feeding and roosting sites. Inexperienced hens learn how to take care of young without being totally responsible for their care. When Carl Stamm (Retired from Connecticut Wildlife) monitored several hens, he found they raise up to eighteen young each year (personal communication).
When Winter Comes
In the fall, the young toms (called Jakes) leave the creches, band together, and face the winter on their own. Young hens remain with their mothers and search for males in the spring. The Jakes display in their first spring, but are usually unsuccessful in attracting hens for several years until they learn the finer points of the mating game.
Why the Turkey is not our National Bird
Wild turkeys display faithfulness to their brothers, sisters, and offspring. They are exceedingly wary and difficult to hunt. Prepared properly, the meat is delicious and nutritious. Benjamin Franklin wanted to establish the turkey as our national bird. He felt it was more noble than a thieving, carrion-eating raptor. But he was outvoted by a cadre of bellicose insurgents pleased to have stolen an entire country from their king. Thus, our national bird became the bald eagle, a symbol of war; rather than the wild turkey, a symbol of strong familial attachments.