Wild turkeys and city people: taming reduces resilience

Wild turkeys are taking over again at Meadowcreek.  Last weekend Meadowcreek said goodbye to Nimbus, a delightful Great Pyrenees, who had kept the deer out of the garden and the turkeys at bay all summer.

wild turkeyNow they are all back.  A turkey flock was meandering down Meadow Creek Road when I was heading for my post-work swim yesterday.  It was the first flock I’d seen since Nimbus.  Most moved off the road quickly, but one yearling stood looking at me and then sauntered down the road ahead of me.

Finally he realized he’d lost his flock and uttered the little yelp young turkeys and hens use to attract attention.  If you haven’t been around wild turkeys, you might not realize the number of sounds turkeys make.  Sometimes people wonder why we like turkeys so much at Meadowcreek, until they hear the sounds they make.  Then, when they see them they are really hooked.

In early spring, male turkeys gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Most gobbling occurs from about forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise Males also emit a low-pitched “drumming” sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken.  In addition they produce a sound known as the “spit” which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack.

After the mating season is over, a huge library of vocalizations emerges: “clucks”, “putts”, “purrs”, “cutts”, “whines”, “cackles”, and “kee-kees”. You’d swear they are having a conversation when these noises start erupting from a flock.

The first sound very young birds make is a high-pitched whistle; peep, peep, peep, peep. As summer advances the voices of the poults change and this “lost whistle” becomes a lower, coarser kee, kee, kee. It usually has three unevenly spaced notes in about a second.

As fall approaches, the kee-kee turns into the yelp which sounds like a low chirp-chirp-chirp.  All turkeys use this standard “Here I am, where are you?” sound.

Another one we hear a lot is the cutt.  The cutt is one turkey saying “Here I am, where are you?” but telling the other bird “If we are going to get together you have to come to me.” It is a loud insistent call, and the notes are strung together in bursts of two’s and three’s, with about a second between bursts. It sounds like TUT…TUT…TUT, TUT. TUT …TUT…TUT, TUT…TUT, TUT, TUT.

Purr is a soft rolling call turkeys do when they are content, usually heard from feeding birds.  Putt is a single note that is very aggressive or many notes that are very aggressive, meaning to the rest of the flock that there is danger around.

Live in the turkey woods long enough and you’ll become familiar with a bunch more turkey sounds.  Why do they have so many?  Maybe because they have been around humans so long.

All turkeys came from an area bounded by the present Mexican states of Jalisco, Guerrero, and Veracruz.  Six subspecies are present there.  Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated them 2000 years ago, using their meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing their feathers for decorative purposes, robes and blankets.  When this culture moved into North America and took over Arkansas, they brought their turkeys, corn, beans, gourds and squash with them.  When the Spanish first explored Arkansas, the Indians had huge flocks of turkeys in their villages.

Turkey bones have been found in Indian burial mounds all through the South.  Turkey relics have been found in Arizona dating as far back as 25 A.D. The Anasazi cliff ruins at Mesa Verde and other locations in Utah and Colorado all had rooms for rearing turkeys.

So turkeys aren’t from Turkey, though their name is.  When the Spanish first encountered turkeys among the Aztecs, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl which is a species they associated with the country of Turkey.  The name of the North American bird thus became “turkey fowl”, which was then shortened to just turkey.

The wild turkey is said by some to be able to run as fast as a horse over short distances and fly over a mile.  I’ve never seen them run that fast or fly that long at Meadowcreek, but they can definitely run faster than I can pedal my mountain bike.

The wild turkey is tall and slender with long legs, nothing like the domestic turkey which can’t fly and is fat with short legs.  I think the wild turkey would be a little annoyed to be around his fat city cousin.  Of course his fat cousin wouldn’t last long at Meadowcreek.  The coyotes would get him.

We’ve bred the ecological resilience out of most of our domesticated crops and animals.  With turkeys, we’ve made an intelligent, wily, beautiful animal into a big hunk of stupid white meat.  Good for sandwiches, but not much else.

Much like city people.  Not much resilience is left when you are too domesticated.  City folk need a little bit of the wild in them to last long at Meadowcreek.  They may enjoy it for a few days, but most are just not suited for the wild life.

The turkeys kept by Arkansas’ Indians interbred with wild turkeys.  They could still survive in the wild.  The turkeys we see at Meadowcreek may be descended from them.  I guess they were more resilient than their owners.

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