Turkeys in the Mist

November 25, 2015

Written by Thom Parrish

Recently I was talking with Phil Stone at Effie Yeaw, a long time friend of the Nature Center and local photographer. He told me he had been walking in the field opposite the golf course on Tarshes Drive when he noticed a nicely dressed family gathered to pose for an outdoor family photo. The family was ready for the photo and smiling for the camera when three Tom Turkeys came running at them in fury. The parents frantically grabbed their children and fled in a panic with the three mad turkeys giving chase. He told me he was also similarly attacked by what he believed were the same three turkeys while attempting to exercise in the same field early one morning. Even after he got in his car and started to drive away the turkeys continued to chase his car! By the way, turkeys can run at speeds of 25 mph! Usain Bolt would be hard pressed to outrun a turkey on foot. Wild turkey aggression towards other animals is pretty common. Turkeys are not territorial birds; however, they do form social pecking orders. Alpha turkeys will attempt to dominate other animals they feel are subordinate to them by putting them in their place using kicks and pecks. Occasionally there are turkeys bold enough to feel that even humans are subordinate to them.

The thought of three particularly aggressive rogue turkeys with a penchant for bullying people in the park was pretty surprising. I began to invent a story in my head that maybe these three turkeys were outcasts from turkey society and now live alone with a thirst for revenge. I decided the next time I drive to the Nature Center I would keep an eye out for these three thugs.

The following morning when I stopped my car at the kiosk stop sign on Tarshes Drive I looked out over the parking. There across the field stood a trio gang of Tom Turkeys. Curious, I pulled my car in to the lot and stepped out to see what would happen. The moment I made my move, the three made a beeline straight for me from across the field.

The term “gang” of turkeys never seemed more appropriate to me than it did at that moment. The largest of the three, the alpha turkey, puffed himself up to full size for intimidation while his two subordinate lackeys were sent in for the attack.

When they were close enough they immediately began to jump and kick at me with their sharp inch long spurs, located just above their feet.

I held my camera tripod stand out in front of me and effectively was able to keep them from getting close enough to use that spur. The two beta turkeys stepped aside in defeat. It was the alpha’s turn to take care of business. Now I was in trouble.

The alpha did his best to get past the tripod and attack with a barrage of jumps and kicks.

It is hard to feel the intended amount of intimidation when being attacked by an animal that has a snood and a wattle, I couldn’t help but laugh. Still, I felt bad that the turkeys were agitated on my account, but fortunately the assault continued for only a few seconds more before the top turkey too relinquished ground and together the three retreated to return to their business of pecking at the ground.

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Wild turkeys were a common sight where I grew up in Northern Illinois. Once during my childhood my mother had a friend that moved there from Germany. She had never seen turkeys before. One morning a gang of turkeys showed up outside of her home. Terrified she called the police and reported that horrible small dinosaurs were surrounding her house and she was afraid to leave her home. That really happened. My brother and I still remind each other of that story every time we see a turkey and it still cracks me up.

Fossil records for the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, date back over 5 million years and not much has changed in their appearance. They really do have quite a prehistoric look to them. They are members of the Phasianadae family, the same as pheasants and grouse, and are native to the Americas. Turkeys, and also the Muscovy duck, are the only American native birds to have been domesticated. After the bald eagle, turkeys are probably the most iconic American bird; it was once even suggested by Benjamin Franklin that the turkey be the national bird! (Benjamin Franklin also proposed that the rattlesnake be used to represent the country.) Turkeys were such a popular game bird that they were in danger of becoming extinct in the wild during the early part of the 20th century. Reintroduction programs during the 1940s were successful in bringing the turkey back from the brink. Today wild turkeys have a conservation status of least concern, LC.

Turkeys are one of the animals that the naturalists get asked about most by visitors to Effie Yeaw. A common question is what to do if a turkey becomes aggressive. It’s a funny question I think, but it is a real concern for some trail walkers. For those who worry about turkey attacks; first: do not play dead, second: carry a hiking stick and no, it’s not to whack the turkey with! Hold the hiking stick out in front of you and force the turkey to stay at a distance. This method seems to work well. I like to joke about the danger of turkey attacks, but they really are tough birds. Turkeys have been known to tear rattlesnakes to pieces when encountering them in the wild!

Turkeys are a common and iconic sight at Effie Yeaw. The preserve wouldn’t be the same without them. The naturalists at Effie Yeaw do a lot of scat and track activities during day camps and also with school groups. The turkeys are quite helpful during these activities in that their scat and track is one of the most reliable to find on the trails and one of the easier ones for the kids to identify. The lines their wings leave in the dirt while they are strutting their stuff on the trails also adds story to the find. Did you know you can identify whether the scat was left by a male or female turkey based on appearance? Females leave the swirling soft-serve looking lump and the males leave a more cylindrical shape ending in a “J”.

I’ve joked about the turkey’s appearance, but their iridescent and multi-colored plumage can be quite a striking image. In the right perspective turkeys truly are a beautiful bird; except for maybe their head. I have trouble getting past their head. It really isn’t...the best. Interesting fact about their heads though, they can change color from red, to white, to blue in seconds with changes in excitement or emotion.