The hills and country roads of Marin are great places to see wild turkeys, the very symbol of our Thanksgiving holiday. Wild turkeys were not specifically mentioned in the accounts of the first Thanksgiving, but over the years they have come to be so closely associated with it that we call the holiday "Turkey Day." The wild turkeys that we see and hear throughout Marin are not the same as the domesticated turkeys that we serve on our dinner tables, but the image of a large Tom with tail feathers spread out evokes Thanksgiving for even the youngest of children.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), is native to most of North America. There are six different subspecies: Eastern, Osceola (Florida), Rio Grande, Merriam's, Gould's, and South Mexican. Turkey farmers and hunters tried to introduce domesticated turkeys into the wilds of California in 1877, but they didn’t fare well. The Department of Fish and Game tried to import a hybrid variety in 1908, a mixture of the wild Mexican subspecies and domesticated Eastern U.S. turkeys, but it just wasn't wild enough. Finally in the 1970s, Fish and Game introduced the wild subspecies Rio Grande (M. gallopavo intermedia), which has thrived in the forests and grasslands of the state.
Wild turkeys have a unique terminology to describe them:
- Male adults are known as toms or gobblers
- Female adults are hens
- A young male is a jake
- A young female is a jenny
- Baby turkeys are poults
- The flap of skin that hangs over the beak is a snood
- The flap of skin under the chin is a wattle. Brightly colored growths around the wattle are known as caruncles. Both the wattle and the caruncles can turn bright red when the turkey is agitated or sexually aroused.
- A group of hens associated with a tom is harem
- Wild turkeys use 28 different vocalizations, including gobbles, yelps, clucks, putts, and purrs.
Wild turkeys spend their days foraging on the ground for acorns, nuts, seeds, berries, roots and insects. At night, they fly up into trees to roost. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, and can fly up to 55 miles per hour.
The turkey gets its name through a case of mistaken identity. The Spanish brought the bird back from the Americas to Europe in the 1500s and it soon found its way to English dinner tables. The English mistakenly believed it to be a bird from Africa that had passed through Constantinople, a common port on Spanish trade routes, so they named it after the country Turkey. Over the years, the name stuck even after it was found to be inaccurate.
The great American sage Ben Franklin had a high opinion of the noble turkey, and believed that it should be the national bird, rather than the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache, Franklin wrote in 1784:
For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison 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, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
The wild turkey may or may not have been on the table at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, but the bird was hunted extensively from the earliest days of the American Colonies. English naturalist John Josselyn described the plight of the delicious repast after a trip to the Maine woods in 1672, lamenting that “The English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that ’tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the woods.” By the 1930s, the wild turkey was on the verge of extinction, due to overhunting and the deforestation of its habitat. In response to this, the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed in 1937, which created an excise tax on sporting guns and ammunition. The money that was raised from the tax was used to fund wildlife restoration programs throughout the country and reintroduce wild turkeys to areas where they had once flourished. The population that had declined to only 30,000 turkeys has now been restored to more than seven million today, a stunning comeback for this most American of birds.
The Muir Woods Road is a great place to see wild turkeys, and they often unabashedly block the road here. During courtship rituals, the toms are particularly brazen and have no fear of humans or cars. They will spread their tail feathers like a peacock, display their plumage before the harem, drag their wings along the ground, and gobble loudly in a behavior known as strutting. The bare featherless skin around the face and neck will turn bright blue in a ritual display of their prowess.
Another place to have encounters with wild turkeys is on the trails of China Camp State Park. Early in the morning, the hills around the Shoreline Trail ring out with the characteristic gobbling of the male turkeys calling out to potential mates. Mother hens and poults can be seen darting across the trail, scurrying away into the safety of the underbrush. Large flocks of turkeys can sometimes be seen in the open meadows and alongside the road.
Remember the noble wild turkey as you dig into the feast this year. Happy Thanksgiving!