This winter I have had the pleasure to get to know a flock of about fifty Wild Turkeys who started hanging around my back yard feeders looking for a morsel, or scrap, of food. I have a soft spot for turkeys as I grew up on a farm in South Texas that raised domestic turkeys. Turkeys in general are inquisitive, smart birds that have a lot of character that can be both amusing and entertaining. On cold days I felt sorry for them and decided to give them more than just a snack, so I bought a sack of hen scratch.
If you think it is expensive to feed fifty chickadees, titmice, goldfinches and siskins, try feeding fifty birds that weigh between five and twenty pounds each. Gobbling takes on a whole different meaning after watching a small bucket of hen scratch disappear in a matter of a few minutes. I did not want to have these birds depend on me feeding them, so I limited what I offered them. In visiting with my neighbors I learned that these crafty birds have developed a feeding circuit in the neighborhood. I quickly came to understand that you are not the benevolent giver, but have been taken by a flock of travelling con artists.
I realized quickly that it is very costly to feed whole corn; in a matter of seconds the whole bucket of corn is scarfed down. Only the aggressive individuals will get to participate. By feeding hen scratch, a mixture of cracked corn and milo, or just cracked corn, it takes the turkeys much longer to finish off the bucket. After the first pass of devouring the scratch, the turkeys will spend a lot of time scratching in the dirt and leaves for missed morsels of corn.
This flock is mostly composed of hens and jakes – jakes are the young immature males not yet accepted by the “old boy society” of adult gobblers After a few days and weeks of observing your guests, you begin to recognize individuals in the flock – a small hen with a long beard, one with an injured leg, one with more white in its plumage, a large jake with a nub of a beard, etc. It is also interesting to learn the “pecking order” among the individuals – several of the females seem to be very protective of their space.
After the feeding session is over the birds will hang around, either preening or standing around looking forlorn. I fell for that look once before and now understand that the look is to target my heartstrings in getting me to offer another bucket of corn. The appearance in my backyard has taken on a different perspective with the turkeys becoming yard art both in the trees and on the ground. Seeing a tiny Carolina Chickadee sharing a limb with a huge turkey is a special sight.
On a cool mid-afternoon last week I observed the flock gathered in front of my house under numerous trees seemed to be in their “lounging around” mode. Suddenly they sprang to life – running, flying low, wing-flapping, jumping, and just acting crazy all going in different directions, but staying in the same area. This activity went on for about five minutes before it stopped and life returned to normal. I saw no signs of animosity or aggression between individuals, no signs of intoxication, and no dedicated or protracted chasing of any kind. My impression was that the turkeys were doing their “happy thing or dance.”
I consulted my friends with bird behavior and Wild Turkey experience to see if this was an unusual circumstance. None of my friends had seen this behavior before, but thought that it indicated the turkeys were very happy, feeling good and were expressing their joy in different ways. It reminded me of seeing a group of young children being released from a class and told to go run and play – each kid showing his or her own expression of joy. What I would like to know is what triggered this brief flurry of activity?
Moral to this story: Even though soaring with eagles may seem to be a more lofty goal in life, living with the turkeys may be more interesting and fun.