Wild turkeys

Wild turkeys are smart, wily creatures to whom Americans owe a lot.

One of the most important birds in the continent to us Americans is the wild turkey. Much has rightfully been made of the significance they had to the early Americans, an integral part of our first Thanksgiving dinners, when our very survival wasn’t assured. And ever since that time, turkeys have been in our barnyards, wild areas and Congress.

The wild turkey, as it is known to scientists, is the largest of the order galliformes, which otherwise includes quail like the Bobwhite, grouse, ptarmigan and a few others. The group is largely ground-dwelling birds with simple bills that pick up seeds, fruit and other morsels off the substrate.

Turkeys have a raised hallux, meaning their hind toe is situated up the tarsi, so it doesn’t get damaged when they scratch. Turkeys also have bare heads, with the males having quite colorful skin. This color for courtship and featherless for thermoregulation seem to explain why turkeys have bare heads.

The common turkey vulture, a sarcophagus creature, also has a bare, red head, and is even about the same size as a turkey. They, and other vultures, can stick their heads inside the viscera of carcasses without getting body juices on any feathers. This is also true of the two mighty condors of the Americas, as well as our wood stork, which feeds in murky water.

Members of the galliforms have dark leg and white breast meat because they fly so little and scratch so much. This is because the excess exercise leads to more myoglobin in the muscle cells, the power-producing part of the cell’s organelles. This also explains why most birds like ducks have dark breast meat, as long flights are necessary. Most galliforms couldn’t fly a mile.

Our “barnyard” turkeys are descended from the wild turkey, as most game birds become tame in captivity. Along with a considerably lower IQ, these domesticated birds become quite large, and escaped birds are easily identified by their white tail tips. Of course, when they walk within 10-feet of your car, they’re likely domestic!

There is, however, another species of turkey in the Americas. From southern Mexico through Guatemala is the ocellated turkey, a favorite of the Mayans when they arrived from Asia to colonize the New World. South of there are various species of curassow, huge game birds that are actually arboreal to an extent.

In our country, turkeys aren’t only raised for food, they’re hunted spring and fall by sportsmen who enjoy a challenge. Wild turkeys are exceptionally smart and wary — a bad combination. In spring, the object is to draw in a gobbler, usually imitating its call. Fall hunts take any turkey. This makes it easier in terms of numbers, but males aren’t drawn in by their testosterone, often the downfall of us guys.

It’s interesting how many bird names are used in the English language as non-flattering metaphors. Being called a turkey ranks up there with being labeled a loon, an old buzzard, a chicken, a pewee, and can’t make us happy as a lark. But the wise old owl will tell you that wild turkeys are to be respected, and you can’t duck that fact.

Jim Stevenson is the director of the Galveston Ornithological Society.

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