It was 6:30, kind of a misty, foggy morning and I had just cranked up the scooter and started the rounds of my residential complex, i.e. my apartment in Harborside. First I opened the vertical blinds to see what was happening on or beyond the patio. Suddenly, out of the corner of my right eye, rounding the building was a grayish colored bird, about twice as big as a chicken, coming at a moderate trot toward my patio.
Now, about two weeks ago, a Tom Turkey came by at a quickened pace from the same direction and when I told everyone about it, they didn’t seem too surprised, having heard about occasional sightings. A male, or Tom Turkey is pretty distinctive in his looks, with a red-head that looks like he had a bad case of acne, brownish colored feathers that are iridescent in the sunlight and a beard that looks like hair hanging from his chest, that are really modified feathers. He is pretty tall and has long tail feathers that he can spread out in the shape of a fan to attract the ladies.
The ladies, or hen turkeys, are about half the size of the Toms, maybe just a tad larger, and their heads are gray. Their feathers are sort of a dull, grayish brown and their tail feathers are shorter. And that is exactly what this bird was, trotting along the canal. Like the Tom, she was probably a resident of the Edgewood area of the Aberdeen Army test Center where they live in flocks of 25 or 30 and number in the hundreds. Then I learned there is a large flock living in the heavily wooded area where the Big Gunpowder and Little Gunpowder rivers join at nearby Day’s Cove.
Being curious, or nosey if you prefer, as I am, I had to find out more about our wild, winged Thanksgiving dinner bird that suddenly appeared twice in a short period of time. First of all it is a species of bird that is native to North America, with 5 separate sub- species living from Mexico to Canada. There is one in Florida, one in northern Mexico and Texas, and one in the West, like Wyoming and Montana. We are concerned mainly with the other two groups, one from southern Mexico and the largest in size and numbers, the Eastern Wild Turkey.
The southern Mexican wild turkey is much smaller and the only one that doesn’t live somewhere in the United States. It was tamed and raised by the Indians and when the Spanish conquered Mexico around 1600, they loved this bird so much as a food, they took it back to Spain and it became, at first, a food for the well-to-do. But soon it became so popular that it spread all over Europe as a regular domesticated fowl. When the Pilgrims left for Massachusetts, they even brought a great number along with them to the new Colony, not knowing that a close cousin of their turkey but much larger in size, was already living in great numbers in the woods of Eastern North America. It was one of the regular sources of meat for the native Americans and had been for many years. It is ironic that today, the southern Mexican Wild Turkey, the one from whence came our birds that we feast on to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas and many other festive times, as of last year was put on the endangered species list.
The Eastern Wild Turkey, our bird, ranges from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River. It too, at one time, was rapidly declining in numbers due to loss of habitat. But they learned to adapt and live and even prosper in rural and suburban environments. Just for an example, in our State of Maryland alone there are over 35,000 wild turkeys with some birds occupying every county in the State. We have two hunting seasons in Maryland every year for our hunters seeking turkeys. Each Spring, the 3 far western counties of Washington Allegheny and Garrett yield about 1000 kills and in the Fall, there are more than 2000 killed in the rest of the State.
Since I began telling my friends about my Turkeys along the Rumsey Island Canal in Joppatowne, I have been getting calls of sightings on Stoney Batter Road in Fork, at the Jerusalem Mill Headquarters of the Gunpowder Falls State Park in Kingsville and in the big woods along Bottom Road. They are not the smartest birds that the Good Lord ever put on this earth, especially as youngsters. Of the 10 to 12 eggs that are hatched, about half survive to adulthood…poulets, as the chicks are called, if out in the rain will catch rain in their beaks and fill up and drown. They often have to be shown where their food is in the feeders or they will just starve to death.
But in spite of this inauspicious start, they will eventually be running about 40 miles per hour and can fly for short distances at 50 miles per hour. Their eyesight is 5 times better than ours and they can hear 4 times better than we can and if Ben Franklin had his way, their likenesses would be atop all our flagpoles.