Fabulous Game Birds --
We're Talkin' Turkeys!
with Robert Vaughn, Game Bird Gazette Staff Writer
Turkeys are magnificent game birds that have played an important role in American history culture. Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkeyto be our national bird because it provided essential food for early settlers. While the turkey lost out to the Bald Eagle for that distinction, it nonetheless remains perhaps the most important symbol of Thanksgiving.
Spaniards were the first outsiders to lay eyes upon the wild turkey which is native exclusively to North America. During their 16th Century expeditions to eastern Mexico, the conquistadors found both wild turkeys and ones that had been domesticated by the Aztecs. The great Spanish adventurer and conqueror, Cortez, was probably the first to make written notes of the Mexican race of wild turkey, and he is also credited with introducing it to the European continent. During his expedition to what is now New Mexico and Arizona in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540, Coronado became the first European to observe the Wild Turkey in what eventually became the U.S. and it fast became an economically important game bird.
When the first settlers from England arrived at Jamestown and later at Plymouth Rock, they brought with them domesticated turkeys that had originated from birds collected by the Spanish in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. more than a century earlier. It must have been a surprise for them to find the "wild" version of the turkey present in large numbers in the forests of the Atlantic Seaboard. The wild turkey quickly became an important additional food source for the game hungry pioneers.
Diaries and notes made by the early settlers show that turkeys had little fear of man back then, apparently because they had never been intensively hunted. However, most of the Eastern Indian tribes did use the turkey for food, especially during the winter months. Some Indian tribes looked upon the bird with a degree of reverence and were discouraged from harming it by tribal custom. In some tribes only the children were allowed to hunt wild turkey, partly because of its tame nature and the ease with which it could be taken.
The usual method used to hunt turkeys was to yell loudly and run after them on foot until they flew up into the trees. The Indians would then shoot them down, one by one. Young Indian boys would often decoy turkeys by using a hollow turkey wing bone with which they imitated the gobbling sound of a male bird. The wings of a turkey are powerfully built but not designed for long distance flight. It can run quite swiftly on the ground but not usually for long distances. Thus, it was possible for the Indians to run them down on foot. This was accomplished where turkeys were found in open country and thus could not seek safety in brush or dense forest. Several Indians would chase after a turkey, often with the aid of horses and dogs, flushing it repeatedly until it had become completely exhausted, at which time it was picked up and killed.
Aside from its food value, the Indians made use of the bird in other ways. The feathers were incorporated into clothing and head-wear, used on arrows, and displayed in various ways during tribal ceremonies. The spurs from old males were used as arrow points.
Settlers from Europe considered wild turkey to be the finest and most delicious of all game birds. As the population of the eastern U.S. in-creased and hunting pressure intensified, the turkey became a stealthier, more challenging sport bird. Its tasty flesh, large size, and increased wariness combined to make it one of the most highly prized game birds.
Incredibly large numbers of turkeys roamed about the countryside in many areas of the country in the late 1700s and early 1800s. People of the time reported flocks of hundreds or thousands as they travelled from one settlement to another. As civilization moved westward many people got into the business of hunting and selling turkeys to markets in the eastern cities. They were very cheap then compared to other fowl and s old for six to twenty-five cents each. By 1880 the price of a bird had increased to about a dollar, as by this time there was a scarcity of turkeys created by too much hunting and also because of the clearing and occupation of its woodland habitat for farms, buildings and the extraction of lumber.
It is believed that at the beginning of the 19th Century as many as 10 million turkeys populated timated at more than 3 million, and there is a hunting season for it in 45 states. But by the early 1900's turkeys were far and few between, and they had disappeared from a large portion of its former range. In the early 1800's its range covered fully two-thirds of the U.S., including all or portions of 39 states. Excessive hunting and habitat loss that occurred as civilization spread inexorably westward had practically wiped out the Wild Turkey by 1900.
Fortunately, with the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937 things began to look up for the turkey. This Act provided funding to state wildlife agencies to hire professional biologists to study the turkey's habitat, behavior, and conservation needs, and to set up programs aimed at increasing its population. Hunting was closely regulated, preserves were established, and a major restocking effort was initiated in an attempt to bring the turkey population back to acceptable levels.
Turkeys are considered to be closely related to the pheasant, but they differ enough that classifiers have placed them in their own family which is called the Meleagridae. Two major kinds of turkeys are recognized, and they occupy two separate genera. One is the Ocellated Turkey Agriocharis ocellata (photo at left by Patricia Grant) found in Yucatan, Honduras, and Guatemala. This is a brilliantly colored bird and has a tail that is spotted with eyelike markings. It is similar in appearance to the wild or Common Turkey but does not have the beard-like chest tuft and is a smaller bird. The bare skin of its head is blue instead of reddish as in the Wild Turkey, and various wattles and protrudences are present.
Everyone is familiar with the elaborate gobbling courtship display of the "Tom" turkey where he struts about trying to catch the attention of as many females as possible. Turkeys are polygamous and males will mate with about as many females as are available. Once mating has occurred, the female makes a nest on the ground and lays from 8 to 16 eggs. Incubation takes 28 days, and the female rears the young by herself.
A lot of people keep and raise wild and domestic turkeys. Their management in captivity is about the same as for pheasants, except they're large birds so should be given lots of room to move around in and places to perch. Also they must be kept clean because they aresusceptible to disease, especially Blackhead.
The breeders should be fed a good turkey layer feed beginning at least a month before laying, and the young can be fed turkey or game bird starter. Like pheasants and other gamebirds, turkeys require a high protein diety, especially during laying and for raising the chicks. Along with vegetable matter, they uncover a lot of live food in the wild, thus the necessity of providing a high protein fare when keeping them in captivity--20% or better for the layers and up to 30% or so for the chicks.
Baby turkeys are called poults. The babies are a downy yellowish brown and unlike most birds the wing feathers are prominent from the beginning. When they are 1 1/2 months old they can make short flights, and at four months they moult and gradually change to adult plumage.
You brood them pretty much like pheasants except raising facilities must be larger because they are larger birds. Cleanliness is really important because young birds are so susceptible to disease. Their feed, water and surroundings must be kept as sterile as possible.
A good calcite grit, large size for adults and small for chicks, is essential, and it is good to feed oyster shell to the breeding stock, although their manufactured feed should already contain adequate calcium for egg formation which is why it is so important to always use a brand name or otherwise reliable feed mill, such as Mazuri so you know everything needed is built into the product you are feeding. Always look to buy feed that hs not been stored too long. This is because vitamin content can deteriorate in feed over time. You can mix a vitamin supplement into the feed of wild turkeys or other kinds of gamebirds to be sure they receive all the vitamins and minerals they require. Turkeys are one of the species some breeders really have trouble with in raising chicks if they don't have everything they need in their diet.
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