As Thanksgiving approaches, turkey may be on your mind. The Butterball on your table might seem like a far cry from the wild birds we sometimes spot stalking through the pines, but they actually belong to the same species – one with some interesting characteristics and a long history with humans.
What it is: The wild turkeys that roam our forests and farmlands belong to one of several subspecies found all over the U.S. Our eastern wild turkeys are big birds – males can grow to 4 feet and may weigh more than 20 pounds.
The females, or hens, are smaller and slimmer, with relatively dull brown and gray feathers. The male’s plumage is bulkier, with feathers that can contain iridescent shades of purple, green and gold. In the spring, his naked, wattled head and neck turn blue and red, part of an elaborate display to attract females. Both sexes have distinctive white barring on their primary wing feathers.
Unlike their domestic cousins, wild turkeys are reasonably good fliers. They can’t cover long distances at a clip, but they’re quick to take off and can flap along for good quarter mile, and often fly up to roost in treetops.
Turkeys are well known for their wide range of vocalizations, from the classic gobble, made by the mating male in spring, to the harsh “yelping” of females. Males can also make hissing and deep thumping sounds by compressing an air sac in their chests.
The birds’ social behavior is complex. They tend to gather in familial flocks, and often form larger groups around food resources in winter. Come spring, males attempt to surround themselves with as many females as possible. As the groups come together and break apart, the pecking order is constantly in flux, with older birds typically dominating juveniles.
Where to find them: Eastern wild turkey now abound in New Jersey, including in the Pine Barrens. They love to eat nuts, so they’ll often gather to forage where there are plenty of acorns and other tree nuts. Their foraging also brings them out into grassy meadows and recently harvested croplands, where they root around for seeds, grasses, berries, roots, bugs and even small lizards.
It’s common to see them along rural roadsides, but they’re quite shy, so they’ll often melt away into the woods if you approach.
Why bother: The turkey is a true North American native, long revered as an important food source. For centuries, it’s been symbolically tied to our big holiday feasts.
The turkey’s relationship with people over the last few centuries is fascinating. European explorers were quite taken with the birds when they first encountered them in Mexico in the 1500s. They took them back with them across the Atlantic, where they flourished as domestic poultry. When waves of European settlers began making their way to the New World, they took descendants of those original turkeys with them, bringing the birds full circle.
Wild turkey populations plummeted in the 1800s in New Jersey and elsewhere, largely due to overhunting and habitat destruction. Attempts to increase numbers through the reintroduction of domesticated birds failed, but trap-and-relocate efforts begun in the state in the 1970s proved successful. The Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish and Wildlife estimates that there are now more than 20,000 individuals in New Jersey.