Chances are most northern Virginians did not slink around the woods to snag a wild turkey for the Thanksgiving table. Most people probably lugged a frozen 20-pounder or so from the grocery store to the car to the oven.
Wild turkeys are closer than you might think.
“Fairfax County has many flocks of wild turkeys,” says Jerry Sims, Terrestrial Program Manager, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), but no one knows the number. There may be 180,000 statewide.
Where can you spot a turkey in the wild?
- Visitors to Mount Vernon Estate may see wild turkeys amble by, especially early in the morning. The estate’s managers are not certain how many live there. “Every now and then, our staff will see a hen with a few poults (babies), so we know they are repopulating the flock,” says Mount Vernon’s Livestock Supervisor Lisa Pregent. They think turkeys have been there 20 years or longer.
- Huntley Meadows Park has a healthy flock spread all
over the park, even next to the visitor center, says Resource
Manager David Lawlor. Park officials and the National Wild Turkey Federation released eight gobblers in Huntley Meadows in 2005. “It certainly increased the genetic diversity of the park, but without any females probably did little to increase the park’s overall population significantly,” Lawlor said recently. “I don’t know if they’re still here or not.”
"The flock has increased and there have been several excellent brooding springs which resulted in very high survival rates for poults. That of course has a significant impact on the future population,” he explained.
But predators lurk.“Coyotes are becoming more prevalent in the
park and are without a doubt killing some turkeys and poults in the spring and summer,” Lawlor added.
- Turkeys are commonly seen on Mason Neck. Jeff Lowry estimates there are between 50 and 60 in the state park. They are common and increasing in the Mason Neck and Occoquan BayNational Wildlife Refuges, according to Greg Weiler, Project Leader, Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
A Taste of Turkey History
Turkeys, once a dinner table staple, almost vanished from Virginia by the early 20th century because of overhunting and habitat loss, as forests fell to lumbering and agriculture. DGIF undertook several efforts to bring them back, with the most successful being “importing” some turkeys from other states and restoring habitat, so that today DGIF manages them as a game species, subject to hunting season regulations like bag limits.
A “Bird of Courage”
Some say turkeys have gotten a bum rap over the years, starting with colonialist Benjamin Franklin who promoted the turkey as the national bird, but Franklin and Meleagris gallopavo lost out to the bald eagle.
A very disappointed Franklin bashed the chosen national symbol in a letter to his daughter: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”
He waxed on to sing the praises of his favorite avian: “. . . 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."
Ken Kaufman in his Lives of North American Birds rhapsodizes about turkeys too, describing the wild turkey as “wary and magnificent.” The barnyard turkey is stupid, he maintains, hence “leading to the insulting tone of the word ‘turkey.’”
Wild turkeys prefer wooded areas and feed on acorns, seeds, berries, grass blades and sometimes frogs and snakes, according to Kaufman.
They forage by walking and scratching in leaf litter. Hens lay from 10 to 15 eggs and the family usually wanders in the fall.
And what about gobbling? Turkey fans are unlikely to hear much gobbling this time of year. Peak gobbling in Virginia normally happens in early May and usually coincides with peak nest incubation.
“During turkey mating season the male bird (gobbler) makes a loud noise called a 'gobble' to attract hens and to announce his presence on the landscape. During peak times a bird could make this loud sound many times especially at first daylight,” Sims explains.
So, as you enjoy your bird this Thanksgiving, take some comfort in knowing that you are not gobbling up the national symbol. Rest in peace,