by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
November is rushing by and quickly approaching the time of year our minds and stomachs dwell on the wonderful wild turkey. Once Ben Franklin’s preferred symbol for America, the turkey is a respected and important part of our ecosystem. This Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on the life and history of this unique bird that gracefully moves about the Wintergreen landscape.
The eastern wild turkey has been an important aspect to all people groups occupying the eastern forests of North America. Native Americans used turkey as a food source and relied on the feathers for cloaks and religious attire/rituals. Evidence shows Native Americans domesticated the bird to allow for an easy source of protein and feathers. The forest management by Native Americans, consisting of frequent fires to control the understory, allowed for the robust turkey population encountered by Europeans upon landing on the shores of North America.
The first European settlers included wild turkey as primary food source. As colonization increased, wild turkey became a commercial food source. This abundant pressure, along with land use change from forest to farming, caused wild turkeys’ populations to hit an all time low in the early 20th century. This prompted laws in Virginia outlawing the commercial sale of wild turkey in 1912. The game department of Virginia was created in 1916 to manage the game species in peril throughout Virginia. From 1929 to 1993, restocking measures were introduced to assist the recovery of wild turkey. There are now healthy turkey populations in all parts of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The eastern wild turkey is ideally suited for life in the oak-hickory forests that dominate the landscape at Wintergreen. This large, ground bird spends its day walking the forest in search of acorns of all sorts, beech and hickory nuts, seeds from a variety of other sources such as grass, berries and other supplemental options such as salamanders, insects and snails. At night, groups of turkey take to the air to roost in the branches of mature trees, preferably pine trees. A mature turkey has few natural predators due to its many advantages. The eyesight of turkey is three times better than a human and can even see into the UV light spectrum. Combine this with a 270-degree field of view and you have an animal very hard to sneak up on. When trouble is spotted, they have the option to take off via foot or feather. They can run up to 25 mph and fly up to 55 mph.
The courtship period for turkeys is late March to early April in Virginia. The strutting male turkey is a fun encounter for any lucky outdoorsman. The adult male display is accomplished by puffing out of the feathers, fanning out their tail feathers and dragging their wings. The dominant male breeds with multiple mates. Egg laying begins in mid-April to early May and hatching occurs 28 days later. Chicks are raised by the mother, following her around eating seeds, berries and insects. During this period of their life, turkeys are most vulnerable to predation. Bobcats, coyotes, fox, raccoons and hawks are the primary predators of turkey poults.
Getting a glimpse of turkeys in the wilds of Wintergreen is not a simple task. The key is to first find evidence of their activity. The best clues left in the backcountry will be areas scratched by a flock of turkey. Turkey will find a promising area for mast or insects and scrap the leaves off the ground in search of food. Finding a freshly scratched area is a great clue to turkeys in the vicinity. A few trails to find turkey on are Cedar Cliff Main, Lower Shamokin Falls and Pedlars Edge. These trails take you through varied terrain that has great scratch locations for turkey to frequent in their search for a meal.
When you sit to feast with family or friends this Thanksgiving, dwell on the uniqueness that is the eastern wild turkey. When the meal is complete, burn off all those calories on our trail system in search of this elusive creature in the wilds of Wintergreen.