Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 10, 2008

Turkey in the Corn

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:52 pm

You never know when itís time to talk turkey, but when that time arrives itís best to take advantage of it.

†This weekend, I ventured over to the west side of the state to northern Kent County.The area north of Grand Rapids is getting hammered with lake effect snow this winter. Over a foot of the white stuff sits on the level ground and wind blown drifts are cresting over the weed-tops. Driving down an unplowed back country road through the rolling fields of the northern county, I spied a tremendous flock of wild turkeys in the distance. They were foraging in a stubble cornfield ahead.Since there was absolutely no traffic, I simply stopped the truck in mid road and reached for my binoculars to take in the scene. A mist of fine snow obscured the distance, but I was able to count at least 60 of the big dark birds spread out over a half mile.

Even though a substantial space separated them from me, a few alert avian heads shot upright and made note of my halted progress on the road. Soon the whole gang began to crane their necks and look about in confusion. A few of them continued to scrape away the snow cover like so many barnyard fowl and others were blissfully chasing one another with loping -almost dinosaur like -gaits. At any given time at least a half dozen birds managed to shoot a stink eye in my direction and keep abreast of me (that was a little joke, by the way). They all began to gravitate back towards the tree line in slow retreat.

Over the course of a few minutes I was able to determine that a majority of the birds were beardless and therefore females (that was not a joke).Turkeys gather together into winter flocks based on sex and age. Hens, like the females in this group, stick together to form a sisterhood of survival. Young males, or jakes, will form separate gangs as will the adult males called Toms.All this separate but equal stuff will end with the onset of the breeding season, but for now segregation is the law. Male turkeys are distinguished by their larger size, possession of fighting spurs on their legs, and long bristly tufts coming out their mid chest (these tufts are very hair-like in consistency and thus the reason they are called beards).Like people, hens can sometimes have beards but, unlike people, the turkeys donít relegate them to the circus sideshows.

I decided to step out of the truck, leaving it in the middle of the road, to walk a short way into the field to take a look at some of the turkey sign.Hens usually weigh about 8-10 pounds or so, so their bulk impresses a clear track into the moist snow.They walk by placing one foot directly in front of the other and so leave a linear line of footprints when on the move. Here you can see a single wrinkled print with three large forward pointing toes and a small mark made by the tiny back toe. (Here’s another print with a 6 inch pen next to it† for size reference).The field was pockmarked with deep scrape holes that exposed the soil level. The turkeys were gleaning corn grains left by the fall harvest.

During the time I was investigating this sign, the whole flock had pulled together into a dark cautious mass about a quarter mile away along the tree line.They clearly didnít want to leave the field unless they had to. Even if it took energy to dig down to it, the promise of waste grain was more than worth the effort. The pressures of finding late winter food reserves are made all that more difficult by heavy snow conditions. Woodland nut crops, the mainstay of turkey fare, are buried under the deep snow whereas the wind-blown open fields offered easier access to food. Historically the fate of our northern turkeys has hung on the severity of our winters, which is why they are not found further north than the level of the Upper Peninsula and extreme southern Ontario.My presence wasnít helping this particular flock either, so I elected to scoot back to the vehicle and leave them be.

Further down the road, I was admiring the stump fences that mark the fields in this area.Danish farmers who worked these grounds in the early 1900ís found the place littered with the stumps of white pines cut during the great pine era.What once was a mighty forest had been clear cut in the late 1800ís. All the land had left to offer was fertile ground for those willing to work it for crops. In the process of plowing the ground, the hardy immigrant farmers pulled up the stumps one by one and laid them up as fence rows which survive to this day. This deforestation from pine lumbering was one of the reasons that wild turkeys disappeared from Michigan in the first place.

The resurgence of the wild turkey is one of the great conservation stories of our time. Their return has occurred only within the last few decades Ė orchestrated by the hard work of game agencies and conservation groups. It wasnít that long ago that the only wild turkey to be seen in these parts was to be found in a bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon.

I passed a hand-made sign out in front of one of those old Danish farms as I entered onto†the main road.I donít know whether an old Dane lived there anymore, but the message in his yard was one that cut across cultural barriers.ďRepentĒ it said. In the light of what weíve just talked about I can see a dual message of both personal salvation and making good on past ecological wrongs.

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