While walking down a tree-lined street in Washington, D.C., not far from the Potomac River, and saw a medium-sized animal several blocks away. I thought it must be a stray dog, but as I got closer, I realized it wasn’t a dog at all. It was a wild turkey. Walking down a city sidewalk.
Such sightings in suburban and even urban areas are becoming increasingly common. It’s extraordinary when you consider that just a few decades ago these birds were almost completely wiped out by hunting and habitat loss.
Fortunately for the wild turkey, conservation measures were put in place along with captive breeding and reintroduction programs. The result was a major recovery; they’re now found in all of the lower 48 states. In fact, their rebound has been so successful that in some places wild turkeys are regular garden visitors.
On the ground, in the trees
Although wild turkeys are found in a variety of different habitats, they generally prefer wooded areas. They live in flocks and spend most of their time on the ground, although they’re quite capable of flight and roost in trees at night. During the day, they forage for seeds, nuts, berries and fruit as well as any insects, worms, snails, snakes and salamanders that cross their path.
Wild turkeys nest on the ground. Females don’t build much of a nest, but they scratch out a shallow depression, surrounded by whatever leaves and twigs are present on the nest site. They lay four to 11 eggs that hatch after three to four weeks. Their babies, called poults, are precocial, meaning they’re well-developed and able to walk and feed themselves shortly after hatching. Multiple broods group together under the watchful eye of one or two females.
Lure them with food
If you want to encourage wild turkeys to visit your yard, you’ll need to provide food. Plant a variety of native plants that offer the aforementioned food. Include as many trees and shrubs as you can to provide them the sheltered, woodsy habitat they prefer. Oak trees are a good choice because they provide food in the form of acorns (relished by turkeys) as well as a place to roost. Nurture and preserve mature trees that are already in place, and underplant them with shrubs and understory trees to provide shelter and additional food sources. Allow a good layer of leaf litter to build up in the garden to attract invertebrates and other small critters that turkeys eat.
You can supplement natural food sources with feeders. Wild turkeys often gather underneath hanging feeders to clean up what songbirds have dropped. You can also use platform feeders placed right on the ground to offer food directly to turkeys. Add some large birdbaths on the ground to provide drinking and bathing areas, and you’ll have provided everything that wild turkeys need to survive.
As thrilling as it might be to see turkeys in or near your garden, a word of caution: They will readily raid your vegetable garden, so fencing might be necessary to protect your crops. Also, male wild turkeys are quite territorial and have been known to act aggressively while protecting their flocks. If you have an aggressive turkey in your neighborhood, stop any feeding to discourage such nuisance behavior.
Out of the wild, onto the table
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of only two bird species native to North America that has been domesticated (the other is the Muscovy duck). There are six subspecies of wild turkey. Five live in the U.S. The sixth is a Mexican subspecies that was domesticated more than 2,000 years ago in Mexico and Central America. Early Spanish explorers brought the domesticated birds to Europe. When Europeans settled in North America, they brought the birds back—and they’ve been an American farm staple ever since.
Over the years, breeding of various turkey subspecies has resulted in numerous turkey varieties, including the broad-breasted white turkeys sold in most groceries stores today. Prized by commercial farmers for their large breasts and white feathers (which make for cleaner-looking plucked birds), they’re the turkeys many Americans will eat this Thanksgiving.