Birds of Bounty
Five species of turkeys can be found in the United States, but only the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is found in Maryland. The Eastern wild turkey typically weighs anywhere from 15-22 pounds and is rich brown in color. At first glance, a turkey’s head may appear bald. However, both their head and neck are actually covered by thin hair-like feathers. Male turkeys, or gobblers, have a distinctive fleshy red lobe of skin hanging from their neck which is fittingly known as a “wattle.” And if wattles weren’t enough, males also produce sharp bony spurs on the back of their legs which grow throughout their life and aid both scientists and hunters in determining age. Although it is not a common occurrence, it is possible for female turkeys, or hens, to produce their own wattles. But unlike their male counterparts, female turkeys lack both leg spurs and vibrant plumage.
Contrary to popular belief, turkeys are incredibly intelligent creatures. They also have excellent hearing and astonishing full color vision that is 5 times more acute than ours! And it is quite the surprise to see a turkey move as they can run up to speeds of 25 mph and fly short distances at 55 mph.
In the wild, turkeys have a relatively short lifespan of roughly 2 years. And despite their short lifespan, turkeys are social birds who live in large flocks during their spring mating season.
A Taste Transcending Time
State historical records reveal that the Eastern wild turkey was a fairly abundant food source for Native Americans and colonists alike. However, it is commonly thought that Native Americans coveted the turkey more for its eye-catching plumage than its taste. Colonists relied heavily on turkeys during the winter months as they were easy to locate among the barren forests and snowy fields. The biology of the Eastern wild turkey has changed very little since the early 17th century. And while our methods of preparation have (thankfully) changed, the turkey’s flavor has not!
The Eastern wild turkey remains the most hunted turkey subspecies in the US. So when you load up your fork this Thanksgiving, you are likely tasting the same succulent flavor as the earliest colonists of Maryland!
Too Much Foul Play
While the Eastern wild turkey’s flavor has changed very little over the centuries, its habitat has changed drastically. In the early 1970s, turkeys were virtually extinct on the Eastern Shore, and no more than 2,000 existing in their confines of Maryland’s westernmost counties. Humans easily became the largest predator of wild turkeys due to poor land management and overhunting.
Turkeys require a specialized habitat. In order for a wild turkey flock to survive, they require anywhere from 500 to 1,000 contiguous acres of land, with at least 30% of that forested. Luckily, the Eastern wild turkey’s population has improved dramatically thanks to decades of breeding and relocation efforts. The Maryland’s turkey population now sits comfortably at 30,000 birds. And believe it or not, but some of the densest populations reside right here in our Coastal Bays’ watershed!
About the Author
Maddie Talnagi is currently serving as the MCBP‘s Chesapeake Conservation Corps member. Maddie is a recent graduate of The College of William & Mary where she studied psychology and history. At MCBP, Maddie assists with wetland assessments, restoration monitoring, the Oyster Gardening Program, and water quality monitoring efforts. Maddie is passionate about coastal resilience and mitigating the effects of climate change and hopes to continue her education by pursuing a master’s degree in conservation and environmental management.