- First published July 2003.
“Turkey, Uncarved” by Christina Fehre and Emory Davis was first published in the July-August 2003 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
- Turkeys can fly 40–55 miles per hour.
- Turkeys can run 12 miles per hour.
- Turkeys can dig through 4 to 6 inches of ice and snow to reach food in the winter.
- Turkeys were not only an important source of food for Native Americans, but their feathers were also used for religious ornamentation.
Every day, visitors and employees at the park come across rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, snakes, lizards, and many other wild species that make this park their home. In recent years, the wild turkey has become a part of this habitat, making daily wildlife sightings just a little more interesting. This summer especially, it would actually be strange not to see a certain turkey outside Park Headquarters, either perched on the fence or curiously observing our own daily activities. Sometimes he seems more interested in us than we are in him! A couple miles south, in Greenbrook Sanctuary, a whole flock of turkeys can be seen looking for food, caring for their young, and showing off their magnificent plumage.
The Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo sylvestris) is a large bird, the males reaching a height of two and a half feet and an average weight of 18 – 20 pounds. Male turkeys, also known as toms, are brown with rusty tail tips, bluish, naked heads marked with red wattles, and a long beard of hair-like feathers hanging from their chests. Females are smaller, less iridescent, and less likely to have a beard. Their call, as is well known, is a gobble. The customary diet of the wild turkey includes fruits, seeds, nuts, and acorns. The turkey’s breeding season begins in early April and lasts through early June. The male turkey, during mating season, will strut and fluff his feathers to attract discerning hens. A single male will mate with many hens. After mating, the female will go off alone or with another female to build her nest and lay her eggs. A month later, the eggs will hatch and the mother moves her brood into grassy areas where her hatchlings, known as poults, can feed off insects. Sadly, about 60 to 70 percent of the poults will die within the first four weeks of hatching: nature’s way of filtering the weak from the strong and keeping the population in check.
Wild turkeys roost in trees at night, and during the winter, broods will group together into large flocks. If necessary, a healthy, large turkey can live up to two weeks without food.
Foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and great-horned owls naturally prey upon turkeys. Humans have also played a large role as a predator of the turkey for thousands of years. Until the late 1970s, there were no hunting restrictions to protect turkeys, and no attempts were made to maintain their numbers. Due to over-hunting and an increase in human settlement in their natural environment, the wild turkey population greatly suffered during the nineteenth century.
Wild turkeys were prevalent throughout the East Coast and its surrounding forests before the arrival of European settlers. They continued to thrive until the mid-1800s, when year-round hunting and the development of homes and small farms brought their population to near extinction. As the small farms slowly became obsolete at the start of the twentieth century, the natural environment of the turkey was eventually restored, making it possible for turkeys to re-enter the New York/New Jersey woodland area. However, the turkey population was still unnaturally low, and a reintroduction program was begun in New York in 1959. Turkeys were trapped during the winter, when their natural food sources are limited, and then bred to be released in the spring. Since the reintroduction program began in 1959, approximately 1,400 turkeys have been released into the wild, more than three hundred of which were sent to other states surrounding New York and New Jersey. These wild turkeys have flourished, and have since reestablished a significant population in those areas.
Although it is disputed and uncertain how turkeys came back into this area, it is hypothesized that the turkeys on the Palisades may have made their way down to New Jersey from New York. Now that wild turkeys have become prevalent, hikers and homeowners on or around the Palisades will encounter these birds regularly. In these areas, you may see just one turkey, or, if you are lucky, you may run into a flock, including their poults.
So when exploring the Palisades, be on the lookout for these strangely intriguing birds. To see them is to see a piece of American heritage that has been absent from our environment for far too long.
Christina Fehre & Emory Davis