Ask any American to describe the first Thanksgiving, and he or she will likely sketch out something like this: Black-clad pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered around a table loaded with corn, squash and other fruits of the colonists’ first harvest. And the centerpiece, of course, was a huge, golden-brown turkey.
Turns out, the gobbler actually may not have attended the formative feast in 1621. Sure, wild turkeys were plentiful in New England at that time, but historians say that the “fowl” mentioned in historical accounts of the hallowed meal might actually have been waterfowl, like ducks and geese, or even the venerable bald eagle.
While that 400-year-old cold case may never be solved, scientists are making strides in cracking other mysteries surrounding the turkey. They’re discovering that many long-held assumptions about the comical bird, including its sex life, are not quite right— or just plain wrong.
“We’ve learned recently that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did,” says Michael Chamberlain, a wildlife ecology and management professor at the University of Georgia. For the past several years, Chamberlain has been using satellites to track turkeys across the Southeast, often working with conservation groups and state agencies. “It’s mind boggling how much information GPS tracking gives us.”
For example, gobblers don’t bed down in the same spot every night. “A hunter will tell you—and I’ve thought this, too—‘I heard that turkey gobble at the same spot five days in a row,’ ” says Chamberlain. “No, you didn’t.”
The wild turkey is one of only two domesticated birds native to the New World (the other is the Muscovy duck, which also happens to sport caruncles, those fleshy tissue masses covering the head). A combination of extensive hunting and land-clearing drove turkey numbers down to around 30,000 by the 1930s. A massive trap-and-transfer program since then has been wildly successful, and today some seven million gobblers strut across the country. As a big bird that nests on forest floors and along rivers, the wild turkey is an important indicator of ecological health, says Chamberlain. While most populations are currently stable, some are dropping fast, especially in southeastern states such as Arkansas and Missouri—a signal that habitat quality may be declining. And if turkeys are suffering, so might their neighbors.
Chamberlain’s research has confirmed that the hefty ground-feeders, which top out around 24 pounds, are generalists, able to eke out a life in a variety of habitats. He and colleagues have also verified that gobblers require a fair bit of land, a couple hundred acres on average (the birds, though capable of flying short distances, typically walk, or sashay, from place to place).
But more exciting, says Chamberlain, is what scientists are only just discovering. Many of the GPS findings are upending what we thought we knew about the sex lives of turkeys. Here’s how scientists had presumed the mating game went: The breeding season kicks off in March and runs into late May. Hens select one or more toms that turn her on—likely fellas with a longer snood, that muscle hanging off the forehead, which may be a sign of good health—and gets all of her mating done in a single, brief window. (Fun fact: Multiple sperm donors can lead to one brood’s having a mix of baby daddies.) The actual deed takes mere seconds, but hens can store sperm for up to 57 days, enough time to produce a second clutch if the first fails. When she’s ready to lay, the hen goes to a preselected, vegetated site and lays roughly one mottled egg (about the size of a chicken’s) per day for two weeks. Every day during the month-long incubation period, she gets up to relieve herself, eat, and drink.
Some of that’s right, but Chamberlain’s work is rewriting the story of the hens’ courting and nesting habits. He has found that the birds are breeding well into June and laying eggs in July. Some hens are laying three clutches, which means that they’re hitting up males for a second flurry of mating, since they can store enough sperm for only two clutches. Hens don’t appear to select nesting sites in advance, something Chamberlain says he himself had previously reported. “They don’t go anywhere near the nest site until literally just before they start laying eggs,” he says. And instead of getting up daily to poop and refuel, they stay on the nest for days at a time. When they do pop off the eggs, it’s only for about an hour, and they usually won’t stray more than 30 feet away. “That’s been shocking because we just assumed they had to get off the nest every day to take care of their own needs,” says Chamberlain. Hens, it seems, are tough turkeys.
They may also be tricksters. Hens in suburban California have been known to deposit their eggs in another mom’s nest, leaving those unsuspecting ladies to raise offspring that are not their own. Chamberlain is launching a study to see if rural turkeys similarly shirk their maternal responsibilities. He’s also interested in investigating whether some hens split nesting duties: He and colleagues have observed turkeys on nests that they know belongs to other birds, indicating that multiple gals might incubate the same clutch. “How that operates, I do not know,” he says.
The GPS work is also offering insights into how wild turkeys respond to external pressures like wildfires and hunting. Chamberlain has four studies under way aimed at teasing out the effects of prescribed fire on reproductive ecology, such as how long it takes birds to reoccupy burned areas and whether nests are getting scorched. And he’s looking into how the wild turkey, a popular game bird, responds to hunters. Tracking has revealed that there are three types of turkeys, when it comes to hunting: dead ones that get shot, the “get out of Dodge” types, and those that hunker down and quietly wait out gun-toting predators.
In one instance, before Chamberlain began using GPS units that automatically send location data, he tried to get a bird killed so he could recover its transmitter. First he gave its exact location to a young hunter; the boy merely spooked the bird, which traveled to a spot a mile away. When the regular hunting season opened the following week, Chamberlain passed along the bird’s coordinates to an experienced hunter who had to reach the spot by boat. He called the bird up to him, but it fled again, this time to a spot two miles away, within sight of a highly trafficked hunter check-in station. It evaded death for days and days. “Finally, it was shot by a hunter who never called, just sat quietly in the woods, and this turkey walked by,” says Chamberlain.
The stoics have been the biggest surprise, with many staying within eyesight of roads and trails that hunters frequent. “They may survive by simply becoming so smart that you’re not going to kill them,” he says. “We assume that they quit gobbling and don’t respond to hunters’ calls.”
Chamberlain knows exactly how close hunters get to their quarry because he has outfitted people with GPS units, too. That has uncovered even more misconceptions, albeit related to human behavior. Turns out, we don’t venture nearly as far from roads and trails as we think we do. That’s certainly something for a turkey to gobble about.
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