About Wild Turkeys

Your sort of gorgeousness,
Dark and lustrous
And unfathomable
And poopy-glossy,
Is the gorgeousness that evokes my darkest admiration
(Excerpt from “Turkey-Cock” by D.H. Lawrence)

Recently, a small flock of wild turkeys has been visiting our house. 

These large birds walk down our driveway, cross the yard, and head towards the woods. They often stop at the edge of the deck to forage for the sunflower seeds that the blue jays have thrown out of the feeder.  When foraging the turkeys scratch the ground with their feet to uncover seeds, then peck at the ground to pick them up.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a wild turkey, they are a dark colored bird with an iridescent bronze-green plumage on the chest, white bars on their wing feathers, and tail feathers that are tipped in light brown, or rust color. They also have a bald head and neck, which gives them a unique appearance.

Wild Turkey, Photo Credit: Brian McKenney/Macaulay Library
Wild Turkey, Photo Credit: Brian McKenney/Macaulay Library

As they walk, turkeys leave pretty distinct tracks.  They have three toes that face forward and you can sometimes see a back toe.  Since turkeys travel in flocks, there will often be several sets of tracks together. 

Turkey Tracks in Snow
Turkey Tracks in Snow

Although turkeys prefer to walk, they are able to fly. I usually only see them fly when they have been startled, or when the dog and I scare them out of their overnight roost in the tree tops.  


Benjamin Franklin and the Wild Turkey

There is a story that you hear every now and again that Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be the symbol of the United States.  Well, it turns out that story isn’t exactly true. 

This story, which has its origins in a letter that Franklin wrote to his daughter, starts with Franklin criticizing the look of the bald eagle on the Great Seal saying that the eagle looked like a turkey.(2) This criticism, however, is just the beginning of this story. 

The story really takes hold when Franklin criticizes the choice of the bird based on its behavior.

“He [The bald eagle] is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. . . .With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country.”(3)

Compare this to what Franklin wrote about the wild turkey.

For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”(3)

So even though it seems Franklin may have not directly recommended that the United States adopt the turkey as the symbol of the nation, he did suggest that the turkey’s character was more aligned with the new country’s values.


To add to this story, artist Anatole Kovarsky created an illustration for the New Yorker which depicts a turkey in the center of the Great Seal.(2)

1962 illustration by artist Anatole Kovarsky: Great Seal with Turkey
1962 illustration by artist Anatole Kovarsky

This illustration was published about 168 years after Franklin’s death, so it isn’t directly linked to Franklin’s letter to his daughter.  But it does add a nice element to this turkey tale.


Resources:

  1. D.H. Lawrence; “Turkey-Cock”: Poetry Foundation 
  2. Jimmy Stamp; “American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal”: Smithsonianmag.com
  3. Franklin Institute; Benjamin Franklin FAQs
  4. All About Birds; Wild Turkey: Cornell Lab

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20 thoughts on “About Wild Turkeys

Add yours

  1. There’s nothing “poopy-glossy” about the wild turkeys that have entered our yard the last few days (although I suspect that Lawrence was referring to a healthy-looking domestic bird of the farmyard variety, rather like the gobbler pictured in this post. In fact, our wild birds are looking rather gaunt & winter-scarred at this time, pecking around for the seeds of spring renewal. And I wonder what Franklin would have made of a scene I witnessed behind our place a few years ago: a mature bald eagle was chasing a flock of frightened turkeys back & forth along a fence-line in the deep snow, relentless in its low-flight approach to the big wild turkeys as if to kill one for a meal. Eventually, though, the eagle tired of the chase, either in frustration or to search for another game to play. At any rate, neither species seemed to qualify as a symbol for the “Great Seal” that day.

    1. Hi Walt, interesting that the birds down there aren’t looking that healthy. The ones in our yard are quite large and healthy. Maybe it’s the fact that we live next to several corn fields! Interesting to hear about the bald eagle. There is never a dull moment when watching wildlife!

    1. Hi Phil, Turkeys seem to have become more common in residential areas. My family lives in Massachusetts and the turkeys are everywhere. I don’t remember seeing them growing up.

      1. I moved a bit upstate (about 25 miles) recently to a more rural type of area and I generally am seeing more wildlife. We did not have wild turkeys where I used to live. One bird that has been disappearing is the beautiful swan. I used to see them a lot more. Now they are a rare sighting.

      2. Hi Phil, I haven’t seen swans in quite a bit. I think the last one I encountered chased me off its island in a park in New Orleans. Although, this might have been a goose. I don’t remember.

  2. A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from ABQ and stopped in at the Bosque to see if there were any Cranes left. Indeed there were a few hundred Cranes and a lot of other waterbirds in the wetlands, but there was also a flock of twenty some-odd turkeys lurking in the woods, almost unnoticed.

    1. That is fascinating! Turkeys seem to like to hang out along the tree lines. I was reading somewhere that turkey tracks and crane tracks are similar in size and shape.

  3. I traveled to Devils Tower in NE Wyoming in 1996. While hiking around the base, I spotted the first wild turkeys I’d ever seen. I found a turkey feather there and kept it as a souvenir in my truck for years. In 2015, I spotted wild turkey tracks at the family farm in SE Utah, then later that day saw a rafter of the birds. I never knew there were wild turkeys on the farm. I’d never seen any evidence of them before (tracks, feathers, sightings) until that day. The tracks resembled those of little dinosaurs. I think I was way too excited over this discovery. 😀 Fun times. Nice essay, Mark. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I like the “little dinosaurs” track description. That is not only a great way to talk about the tracks, it is also pretty accurate. These are some great memories. Thanks for sharing them.

    1. Hi Thattamma, I have often wondered the global reach of some of our native birds. Are your turkeys wild, or more of the captive birds? Or maybe a combination of captive birds that became wild?

  4. I knew people who hunted game, who said the hardest were turkeys. They said the turkeys were wily and knew how to tease humans. They had a lot of respect for the resourcefulness and intelligence of these birds.

    1. I have also heard from people that hunt turkeys that they can be pretty hard to hunt. They are said to have really great eyesight and that is one of the challenges. Thanks for sharing! I hope all is well.

  5. Thanks for this look at a wonderful bird! We have a few different flocks of turkeys near my house, and I was saddened to see one of their common areas logged the other day. They’re smart birds, though, and I’m sure they’ll be fine. That said, I’m going to miss them on my drive to school.

    1. Hi Tim, I often see a small flock in the corn fields on my way to work. It is nice to see them out and about. They are a good reminder that there often is a lot of stuff happening in the woods that we don’t know about. Thanks for the comment!

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