Posts Tagged ‘turkeys’

Throwback Thursday: Big Snoods

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Wednesday, November 14th, 2012
Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey © Kent McFarland

How do you choose your turkey? It might be by weight. Perhaps it is from a favorite farm. Or it could be a brand that you like. But if you were a female turkey, you’d be looking at his snood.

The snood is a fleshy appendage that attaches just above the beak. When tom turkey is just chilling his snood can be fairly short, but when he struts for the ladies his snood engorges with blood and hangs awkwardly down the beak.

It would seem that the snood is just a piece of flesh that is only good for the bling-bling. And we’d be half right, but given that this week is the publishing anniversary of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origins of Species, I think we might ponder a bit about sexual selection. Darwin was first to suggest that mate choice and competition for mates might be a selective pressure that shapes the evolution of populations.

But why would female turkeys choose a big snood in the first place? Is this simply a sexy ornament or is it perhaps a signal that the male has good genes or is healthy? Richard Buchholz, a biologist from the University of Mississippi, pondered these very questions and Wild Turkeys were a perfect study animal for questions of sexual selection. Males mate with multiple females (called polygyny), and the sexes look very different (sexually dimorphic). Buchholz designed some fancy mating tests, checked out the health of the males, and eureka, the answers to snood fashion.

First, Buchholz found a non-sexual function for the bare parts on the head. They are crucial for cooling down strutting tom when he is exerting himself on a hot day. Snood or no snood, he needs his radiator. So there is a clear reason for the bare skin. But that still doesn’t explain the long snood.

He did show that a long snood is indeed selected by females, but males also select it. Females were attracted to a long snood and males deferred to other males with longer snoods. But what is it about a long snood?

It turns out that the longer the snood a male has the less intestinal parasites he has. Long snooded males appear to be more resistant to parasitic infections. Buchholz suggests that if that is true, this might be a case of females choosing males with good genes. And males that are free of parasites are probably more dominant over other males. Short snooded males that defer to long snoods might be able to assess the competition before fighting with them and avoid wasting energy in fruitless fights that they are sure to lose to the healthier snood.

I think we picked a good snood this year for our traditional supper. I hope you’ve been successful in selecting your snood. Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thursday, November 24th, 2011

They’re back! Well, maybe not the same individuals. Turkeys only live in the wild for three or four years. And the last time we had turkeys on our deck scarfing birdseed out of my feeders was five or six years ago.

That last time was in the spring when a small flock showed up every morning and hung around for a week or so. They caused quite a stir in the neighborhood before wandering down the river to a yard where the owner put out large bowls of dog kibble for them to feast on every day.

Then a neighbor called animal services because she was afraid that her dog would get maimed by the turkeys as it challenged them for the dog food. As we all know, there are wild turkeys, and there are real TURKEYS.

Those wild turkeys were quickly rounded up and, I hope, set free in a forest somewhere outside the city.

My yard is no forest but it’s a pretty attractive place for wild turkeys. In addition to the birdseed, there are plenty of acorns, some berry bushes, slugs and grubs in the garden, probably an amphibian or two – regular staples in a turkey’s diet.

In the sunlight, turkeys are quite spectacular looking. The subspecies found here is the Eastern variety (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). Granted their heads look like they got too close to a power mower that shaved all the feathers off and left them with a blue, purple and red scar. But their feathers have an iridescent quality on a warm brown background. And the tips of their tail-feathers are yellow-bronze in color with a band of purple-black just before the ends. I can see why some First Nation peoples used them in their ceremonial headdresses.

Our Canadian Thanksgiving was over a month ago; so I don’t think the turkeys took refuge in my yard to escape the holiday-meal hunters. I hope they stick around. It’s amusing to see them stretch for their breakfast every morning.

No collection of purchased objects, no matter how expensive or exquisite, can match the pleasure of finding a wild animal unexpectedly appearing in your life.

Turkey Day

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Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Things to be thankful for: snow tires, four-wheel drive, insulated boots, long johns, and a down parka. Snow began to fall last night and has continued intermittently throughout the day. If weathermen are correct storms will assail us until Wednesday evening, leaving behind as much as a foot of snow in the valley, significantly more as one ascends into the hills.

Snow continues to fall. The canyon road begins wet but becomes slushy as it climbs. I finally turn onto the snow-covered lane that leads through a locked gate to the wild turkeys. A friend fed them daily all last winter. He started again a few weeks ago. Weather has forced the birds to move from higher elevations to lower country where the snow is not too deep to keep them from feeding.

I cannot at first see the birds but can hear them calling from the wooded hillside across the stream. I watch from my truck. The turkeys move over the water and out of the woods, congregating at its edge. Some wander purposefully across the pasture toward the feeder. We changed the feeding cycle two days ago, setting it forward by an hour so the birds were not foraging in darkness. They have already learned the new routine.

They wait. I wait. The time for the first of five scheduled broadcasts comes and goes. The feeder should be throwing corn to the birds. Nothing is happening. I wait a bit longer and swear. The feeder is jammed.

The closest birds back off as I grumble my way toward the device but they do not bolt. The fouled mechanism is cleared as quickly as conditions permit. I reassemble the feeder, hit “run,” and hold my breath. The electric motor growls. It works properly. As I return to the truck I hear chaos behind me, a mad scramble as the birds near the trees rush to join those already enjoying the shower of corn. The second of the broadcasts begins a few minutes later. The feeder jams a second time. Again I leave the truck, my presence testing the limits of their wary patience, but they remain. After clearing the jam I hit the “run” button, standing still as stone beside the machine. The turkeys ignore me and feed, cooing as they eat. Attempting to count the birds is as futile as trying to count the kernels thrown by the feeder. I estimate sixty birds, seemingly all hens although first year males have not yet begun to show the breast beard, spurs, and facial coloration typical of adult males.

The feeder finally completes the last of its cycles. A small but significant pile of corn has accumulated on the ground near my boots, the aftermath of clearing the jammed machine. The turkeys can see it. One brave hen walks cautiously forward and begins to feed. She is joined by another, then a third and a fourth. I wait until they are finished and have moved away before I shift, covered with corn dust and snow. I don’t care for winter. But I know I have something to look forward to, until the snows melt and the birds return to higher country.

Talking Turkey

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Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The sun pours brilliant white light through a turquoise sky on the snow-covered peaks before me. A pair of black-billed magpies chase a sharp-shinned hawk through stands of Gambel oak while Steller’s jays urge them on. Northern flickers and Townsend’s solitaires call from the narrow-leaf cottonwood trees that line the creek, finally ice-free and happily burbling.

The sun is two hours high above the mountains, but the ground remains frozen. I lower my tailgate and back slowly across the rock-hard mud to the feeder. Standing in the back of my truck, I open and empty a fifty pound bag of corn into the hopper, then two more bags, and part of a fourth. It is, by my account, the twenty-third bag since we began feeding wild turkeys last November.

I pull my truck forward, well out of the way, return to the feeder and manually start it. It whirs like an oversized popcorn popper as it throws kernels nearly a hundred feet. After ninety seconds it stops. The turkeys are watching. They know the feeder’s sound and its rhythms. They call to each other from the hills on either side but they do not come down – not yet, at least.

I return at 5 p.m. Many birds are present and waiting. They ignore me. I remain in my truck and watch. A few stand expectantly beneath the feeder, looking up at it. At 5:20 p.m. the feeder begin the first of three ninety second broadcasts, spaced at five minute intervals. Turkeys sprint down the hillside like giant roadrunners, deceptively quick and agile. More fly in from the west, through the cottonwoods, the wind roaring through their feathers. They slide on the mud as they land. It is chaos around the feeder. I try to count the birds but give up when I reach 122. Some birds bark, others gobble, and many coo, sounding very much like doves, but most are silent, hurriedly hunting and pecking the grains of corn as they rain down into the mud. Every now and again a squabble occurs, but the process is mostly peaceful.

The feeder falls silent for the last time. Birds begin to wander slowly back into the hills. Six males with bright blue faces and crimson wattles stand shoulder to shoulder and fan their tails, then begin to drum. I leave my truck and walk down the road to open the gate. When I turn around, I am not alone. My wild friends have followed me, docile as barn yard chickens, hoping for more. I walk toward and then through them, returning to the feeder. They escort me, nearly close enough to touch, a bodyguard of large, wary, fascinating, and paradoxically ugly but beautiful birds. I reach the feeder and manually activate it. The chaos begins anew and I cannot help but smile.