As we approach the great American feast day, it seems appropriate to consider the wild relative of our main dish. A native of North America, the wild turkey once inhabited much of the Continent, from southern Canada to Mexico. Extirpated from many areas by over-zealous hunting, our largest game bird has been making a comeback in recent decades, primarily due to habitat protection, reintroduction programs and improved conservation management.
A bit leaner than their domestic cousins, wild turkeys are nearly as large; adult males often weigh 20 pounds or more. Despite their size, these birds are capable of rapid flight for short distances and, equipped with long legs, usually escape predators by running into cover. Wild turkeys favor open woodlands and are best observed near the border of fields and forest. After feeding on acorns, seeds, berries, corn and insects through the day, they roost in trees for the night.
In spring, adult males gather harems of up to fifteen hens; sparring with one another and attracting females with a mix of gobbling, strutting and feathered displays, these males, like American elk bulls, become obsessed with their mating rituals, foregoing food and sleep for days at a time. Females lay an average of twelve eggs in a shallow, concealed depression and incubate them for almost a month; the young poults remain with their mother through the summer, often joining other broods in communal roosts and on favored feeding grounds.