Who remembers the 1980s situation comedy WKRP in Cincinnati? One episode highlighted an ill-fated Thanksgiving promotion featuring domesticated turkeys shoved from a helicopter flying over a shopping center—and plummeting straight to the ground. Covering the event on the ground, reporter Les Nessman wailed, “Oh, the humanity!” The station manager gasped, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” If only he’d known just a bit about domesticated turkeys, especially in contrast to their wild cousins…
Compared side by side, differences abound between Wild Turkeys—the birds, not the bourbon—and those domesticated turkeys that are raised en masse for the dinner table. A Wild Turkey is sleek, alert and built for speed: An adult turkey can be fleet of foot, running up to 25 miles per hour, and strong of wing, flying up to 50 miles per hour, at least for short distances. At first glance, it appears dark overall, which helps it fade into the dark woods. But in the bright light, you’ll notice a subtle bronze iridescence in many of its feathers and lighter feathers in the wings and tail. Its body is long and humped-looking; its neck, long and thin; and its naked head, amusingly small. Its constant state of heightened awareness makes it one of the toughest game animals to hunt—or even to capture in a quick photo. In sharp contrast, domesticated turkeys have been bred for temperaments that do well in confinement, rendering them docile and pretty far from intelligent. Their white feathers help to prevent skin coloration. They have also been bred to have much larger breasts than their wild cousins; as a result, the birds weigh about twice as much as Wild Turkeys do. Domestic turkeys can’t run very fast and can’t even fly at all (as Les Nessman could attest).
Wild Turkeys forage primarily in flocks on the ground during the day and roost in trees at night. Birds flying into roost trees can create quite a ruckus, cracking limbs and breaking branches en route to nighttime perches. Although acorns are a favorite food, turkeys can be quite opportunistic eaters. Their diet consists mostly of plant material such as leaves, seeds, grains, and berries. But they also eat insects, spiders, and the occasional small reptile or amphibian. In late summer, these birds sometimes feed side by side in an advancing line, crossing a field to flush grasshoppers. Quite a sight!
Ben Franklin held the Wild Turkey in high esteem. Not a fan of the Bald Eagle as the symbol of the U.S., he considered that bird to be a robber and a lazy coward. Instead, in 1782, he wrote, “…the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird… He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage…” One can debate whether he was serious; after all, this comment appeared only in a letter to his daughter. But whether or not you prefer the Wild Turkey as our national symbol, whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving, whether or not you eat domesticated turkey—you can’t miss the many representations of turkeys this month. I hope you’ll take a moment to be thankful for these native, stunning, wily denizens of Colorado’s woodlands.
– by Tina Mitchell