Get to Know Our Other National Bird

By November 11, 2013Bird-friendly Living, Partners

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and we all have many things for which to be thankful. I am thankful that I am not a turkey, and I’m certain that my wife, Kathy, is thankful that she’s not married to one. But this post deals with the animal-type turkey.

The turkey got its name because some European writers confused it with another bird that came from the Turkish Empire. It’s fortunate that they didn’t confuse it with a bird from a Chinese dynasty, or we’d all be having Chinese for Thanksgiving. There aren’t too many leftovers from an egg roll, and I’m not willing to replace pumpkin pie with fortune cookies.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey by Bill Schmoker

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) was domesticated by Indians in Mexico and what is now the southwestern U.S. before Columbus arrived in the New World. Remember Columbus? He mistakenly gave these turkey domesticators the name Indians because he thought he landed in India. These Europeans’ labeling abilities are somewhat flawed, don’t you think?

Spanish conquistadors brought these turkeys back to Europe before the year 1530, and later English settlers brought them back to America. All of our domesticated turkeys are descended from the original Mexican subspecies of turkey.

The turkey was so highly regarded that it was once considered a choice for our national emblem. Ben Franklin thought that the Bald Eagle was “a bird of bad moral character … too lazy to fish for himself.” He preferred the wild turkey that, even though “vain and silly,” was a bird of great courage. Today, being “vain and silly” is a requirement for U.S. representatives.

In Colorado, the native form of wild turkey is the Merriam’s sub-species. The bird was hunted almost to extinction in Colorado, and the turkeys we see are the result of the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s repopulation efforts of the 1940s. Turkeys are found around 8,000 feet and below, primarily in ponderosa pine forests with Gambel oak. The tall pines make excellent roosts.

The males gobble and do it in any season. A gobble can be heard up to a mile away. Males are not monogamous but entertain harems of females with their fetching appearance, fancy footwork and soothing croon (gobble, gobble). One brood per season starts in a leaf-lined scrape or depression on the ground. Ten to 12 eggs are laid and are incubated in 28 days. The chicks roost under the body, wings and tail of the mother until they are about 4 weeks old.

Turkeys eat acorns, seeds, fruit, leaves, rose hips, grasshoppers and other insects. They also eat some frogs, lizards, snakes and crabs. You see, they aren’t that much different from us!

They have a powerful gizzard that can crush the hardest foods. In a test, a turkey gizzard flattened an object that normally required more than 400 pounds per square inch to crush it. A large gobbler can eat a pound of food at a meal. That’s four Quarter Pounders to you and me.

Happy birding! For plenty of friendly, free advice on attracting the most beautiful birds in the world, call 303-467-2644.

~ David Menough, Owner of Wild Birds Unlimited of Arvada

David and his wife, Kathy, own the Wild Birds Unlimited store at the southeast corner of 88th and Wadsworth in Arvada. WBU stores specialize in bird feeders, birdbaths, houses, field guides, nature-related gifts, binoculars and quality seed blends.

Other WBU Front Range locations:

  • Wild Birds Unlimited of Denver – 2720 S. Wadsworth Blvd.
  • Wild Birds Unlimited of Fort Collins – 3636 S. College Ave.

Find us at

BirdTalk migrating to noon! Tune in to David and Scott Menough at noon on Saturdays for BirdTalk Radio on 710 KNUS. They will broadcast live from their stores in Arvada and Denver.

Learn more about bird-friendly living.