The last ten years we’ve been observing wild turkeys in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Madison’s Owen Conservatory, both a few miles apart on Madison’s West side. Newspaper accounts say there are about 60 turkeys on the West side of Madison and forty in the East. While we almost daily look for turkeys in the Arb or Owen, we only saw turkeys once on East Washington Avenue, a crowded arterial that politely stopped traffic to let the turkeys cross over the street while we watched.
It was after years of watching that we finally saw the turkeys fly. Turkeys hate to fly, love to walk, and will go to great lengths trying to walk around a fence rather than flap their wings to fly over a six foot fence. Turkeys like roads and use them frequently walking around. After many years we recently noticed a small group of turkeys flying up to tall tree branches about a half hour before sunset. This was from the short quarter mile road into Owen Conservatory, where they apparently prefer to use the smooth asphalt uphill from the trees to launch themselves upward for a night’s rest in the trees. Because they hate to fly, starting uphill from the trees allows them to minimize their effort. Sometimes they are forced to double there effort to make it up to an appropriate limb at the end of their short flight. Then in late May at 5:30 am in early daylight I drove over to Owen before the gate was open. I parked on the street and walked about half way down the road when I heard a turkey chortling about three times before I heard another two birds join the gobbling. That was apparently the wakeup call and the confirmation that the others were now awake. Suddenly one turkey flew down quite close to me, about ten feet away. He was surprised to see me there and promptly started walking down hill away from me, as three more turkeys flew down to the road about halfway between me and the street. Soon there were six of them gathered together on the road. Then they started uphill towards me, so I accommodated them by going away from them towards the parking lot at the top of the hill after an S turn. No sooner did I enter the first turn of the S turn than I confronted three turkeys walking side by side like the three musketeers, about thirty feet from me. So I figured out these birds had “stayed” in the trees West of the parking lot unlike the more usual spot downhill and East of the main road in. I figured the two groups wanted to join together, so I continued my walking uphill to the parking lot on the South edge of the road so the birds could pass me on the North edge of the road and join the lower group of six. That worked, as the birds knew I meant them no harm and they edged over to the one side of the road and let me pass them by. Uphill near the second turn of the S turn I noticed one turkey in the yard of the caretaker’s house. As I passed more bushes, I soon saw that there were five turkeys in the yard. These appeared to be the slightly browner shade of hens, female turkeys. The other nine were probably males, with a more blackish coat of feathers, except for the beautiful fanning feathers in the back.
Male and Female
It was hard to tell male and female apart at first, until I ran into a person who explained to me the difference. Males and females tend to hang out in separate groups most of the time. The male is more colorful with a red piece of flesh hanging from his neck below the beak. The males also have a “tie” hanging from their front maybe eight inches or so below the beak, attached to the main body, and it may be about eight inches long.
In the Spring, usually March and April but occasionally February or May, males like to fan to attract a female. Sometimes they are alone or with another male or two also fanning. Often there is no female in sight. When there are females in sight, they often ignore the males fanning, although the males will turn to face the females and present a good view. But usually the females just keep munching stuff along the ground, too busy eating to worry about the males. They often are moving away from the males while munching. I once observed sex with the female facing away from the male spread eagled on the ground, while the male flapped his wings several times to get in the right position to approach from the rear.
Once I saw a turkey surrounded by small birds by the side of the road. Turned out to be 13 baby turkeys with their mother. I know it’s not the proper term, but we call little baby turkeys “turklets.” Later that year we saw the mother parading a long string of thirteen adolescent turkeys through the countryside. Once we saw a mother with five turklets on the road. The mother and four turklets flew into the nearby trees. The lone remaining turklet struggled to join them, several times pushing off with one foot but going nowhere. We watched in our car hoping she’d get the courage to take off, when finally she did, joining the others who were watching this whole episode from the trees. Sometimes you just have to flap your wings and fly, even though you may think a little leap will do it.
Rain and Seasons
Turkeys seem to love the rain. I think the rain forces worms and grubs out of the ground where they make an excellent meal for the turkeys. You always see more turkeys in the rain. More turkeys are visible after the leaves have dropped. Daily totals in the arboretum often reach the twenties or thirties in November or December. In the spring the total may only reach the teens. In the summer, with plenty of foliage to hide behind, the daily total may stay in the single digits. Late winter and early spring the numbers may fall off as surviving the winter may be hard. In April and May the numbers may drop as nesting begins.
Turkeys often travel in groups of three or four, but seem to prefer groups of seven or multiples of seven. So you may see groups of thirteen or twenty or twenty eight. Often a group of four has a sentinel maybe twenty or thirty feet away watching the group. I think this is a defense mechanism, with one turkey on stand by while the other three munch away without worry. The sentinel system is more efficient with a group of seven, as six can eat while the one watches. Groups can grow as they pick up stragglers. Why the prevalence of the number seven is a mystery to me, but turkeys like small groups and seem to be anxiously looking around when alone or in smaller groups like three or four. At Owen, when the groups settle down for the night, it’s usually a group of twelve or two groups of six each or thereabouts. In the trees there may be a cluster of three or four with several sentinels in different directions.
To read about other natural phenomena: https://www.academia.edu/6002772/WEATHER_CYCLE_7_p._from_WWW_1997_2014
Hint: to read this paper for free, you must click on the tiny word “read” in the middle of the bottom of the screen after you go to the above link on academia.edu.
Dr. Peace, Dr. Robert Reuschlein
Real Economy Institute
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