[Published in 1932: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 326-339]
When the noble red man roamed and hunted unrestrained throughout the virgin forests of eastern North America, this magnificent bird, the wild turkey, another noble native of America, clad in a feathered armor of glistening bronze, also enjoyed the freedom of the forests from Maine and Ontario, southward and westward. But the coming of the white man to our shores spelled the beginning of the end for both of these picturesque Americans. The forests disappeared before the white man's ax, his crude firearms waged warfare on the native game, and the red man was gradually eliminated before advancing civilization. In the days of the Pilgrims and Puritans the Thanksgiving turkey was easily obtained almost anywhere in the surrounding forest; the delicious meat of the wild turkey was an important and an abundant food supply for both Indians and settlers; and the feathers of the turkey held a prominent place in the red man's adornment.
Thomas Morton (1637), one of the earliest writers, says:
Turkies there are, which divers times in great flocks have sallied by our doores; and then a gunne, being commonly in redinesse, salutes them with such a courtesie, as makes them take a turne in the Cooke roome. They daunce by the doore so well.
They soon began to disappear, however, for John Josselyn (1672) writes:
I have also seen threescore broods of young Turkies on the side of a marsh, sunning themselves in a morning betimes, but this was thirty years since, the English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that 'tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the Woods.
Edward H. Forbush (1912) says:
In Massachusetts Turkeys were most numerous in the oak and chestnut woods, for there they found most food. They were so plentiful in the hills bordering the Connecticut valley that in 1711 they were sold in Hartford, at one shilling four pence each, and in 1717 they were sold in Northampton, Mass., at the same price. From 1730 to 1735 the price of those dressed was in Northampton about one and one-half penny per pound. After 1766 the price was two and one-half pence, and in 1788, three pence. A few years after 1800 it was four pence to six pence a pound, and about 1820, when the birds had greatly decreased, the price per pound was from ten to twelve and one-half cents.
Wild turkeys made their last stand in Massachusetts in the Holyoke range, where the last one was killed in 1851. According to Dr. D. D. Slade (1888)
these birds had the range of a large tract of wild mountainous country, in some parts almost inaccessible and impassable, lying at the base of and comprising Mount Holyoke, and to the Southwest also including Mount Tom and its surroundings. I am unable to state the exact period at which this flock became exterminated but should say it must have been in 1840 or thereabouts.
The last turkey in Connecticut was seen in 1813, a few remained hidden in the Vermont Hills until 1842, and they were said to be numerous along the southern border of Ontario as late as 1856. Albert H. Wright (1914 and 1915) has written a very complete account of the early history of the wild turkey to which the reader is referred. Dr. Glover M. Allen (1921) also has given us a very full history of this bird in New England. Both of these exhaustive papers give far too much information to be included here.
Audubon (1840) wrote, as to its status in his time:
The unsettled parts of the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana, an immense extent of country to the north-west of these districts, upon the Mississippi and Missouri, and the vast regions drained by these rivers from their confluence to Louisiana, including the wooded parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, are the most abundantly supplied with this magnificent bird. It is less plentiful in Georgia and the Carolinas, becomes still scarcer in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and is now very rarely seen to the eastward of the last-mentioned States. In the course of my ramble through Long Island, the State of New York, and the country around the Lakes, I did not meet with a single individual, although I was informed that some exist in those parts. At the time when I removed to Kentucky, rather more than a fourth of a century ago, Turkeys were so abundant that the price of one in the market was not equal to that of a common barn fowl now. I have seen them offered for the sum of three pence each, the birds weighing from ten to twelve pounds. A first-rate Turkey, weighing from twenty-five to thirty pounds avoirdupois, was considered well sold when it brought a quarter of a dollar.
In the mountains of central Pennsylvania turkeys have always existed up to the present time. C. J. Pennock tells me that they "have multiplied greatly within the last 15 years," but that most of the "stock has been intermixed with domestic birds." This is largely due to the efforts of the game commission in controlling the hunting season and bag limits and by importing birds from other States or transferring them from a section where they are plentiful to one where they are scarce. A report of this has been published in some detail by Bayard H. Christy and George M. Sutton (1929).
M. P. Skinner wrote to me in 1928:
The wild turkey is still found over most of North Carolina wherever there are undisturbed forests of the kind preferred by the turkey. In the sand hills there are still two or three groups living mostly in the swamps and river bottoms, and totaling perhaps 30 birds in all. They are resident and nonmigratory.
In the sand hills, wild turkeys have largely retired to the deep swamps, for they prefer to roost only in trees standing in water; but quite often they feed out on the drier upland.
James G. Suthard says in his notes, sent to me in 1930:
This noble game bird formerly bred in Kentucky, at large, but at the present time has a very restricted range. It is found in the areas bordering Virginia and Tennessee, in Taylor, Larue, and Hart Counties in central Kentucky, and also in the game preserve in Lyon and Trigg Counties. I have some records for Fulton and Hickman Counties. It is possibly found straggling in other counties, but, because of its retiring habits, I have never seen it, nor do I have any authentic records other than those already mentioned. It breeds during April and May, sometimes late in June.
Wild turkeys are essentially woodland birds. When the Eastern States were largely covered with virgin forests, they ranged widely over the whole of these districts. As the land became cleared they often resorted to clearings, open fields, savannas, or meadows in search of grasshoppers, other insects, berries, and other foods. As their numbers were reduced by persistent hunting, they became very shy and were forced to retire to the wooded hills and mountains, where in many places they made their last stand. There are many hills and creeks named for this bird because turkeys were once common there. Turkeys are now found, in the Northern and Eastern States, only in the more remote and heavily wooded mountains, the wildest and least frequented forests, and the most inaccessible swamps, far from the haunts of man. In the Southern States they are much more abundant and more widely distributed. M. L. Alexander (1921) says of their haunts in Louisiana, which are typical:
The determining factor in the distribution of turkeys is the occurrence of oaks, wild, pecans, beech and other nut-bearing trees. It is chiefly the oaks that attract them to the flatwoods type of river lands, while the beech, chinquapin, and certain species of oaks furnish the mast on the slopes of creeks, ravines and small rivers in pine regions. Dogwood, holly, black gum and huckleberry are among other trees and shrubs, growing chiefly on slopes and ridges, that furnish food for turkeys. Such food is not generally available, however, unless there is sufficient undergrowth to protect the birds while they are feeding. Late in the winter, after the best of the berries and mast in the bottoms of the hill sections have been picked up, or washed out by the rains, the turkeys frequent southerly slopes, with a good cover of brush, scratching in the fallen leaves and other woodland debris for such seeds and insects as may be concealed there.
Courtship.--The courtship display of the turkey gobbler is too well known to need any description here. The wild turkey's display is similar, with the same expansion of body plumage, erection and spreading of the fan-shaped tail, swelling of the naked head ornaments, and the drooping and rattling of the wing quills, accompanied by gobbling and strutting.
Audubon (1840) mentions a peculiar feature of the gobbler at this season, the "breast sponge," which fills the upper part of the breast and crop cavity. This is a thick mass of cellular tissue, which serves as a reservoir of sweet, rich oil and fat, on which the gobbler draws to supply the loss of flesh and energy during the mating season.
The object of the display and the gobbling notes is, of course, to attract the females. Turkeys are polygamous, the gobbler having many mates and serving them all every day during the laying season until his vigor is exhausted. The females separate from the males before the mating season, and each hen comes to her favorite cock once each day, for a short time, during the laying season. She keeps the nest concealed from him and shuns him after the eggs are laid, lest he might break the eggs to prolong his sexual enjoyment. The gobbler often begins to display and gobble before he leaves his roosting tree. He gobbles, watches, and waits until he sees the hen approaching, or hears her responsive yelp or cluck. He flies down to the ground, struts and gobbles again, and waits for the hen to come to him. He probably knows how many hens he has in his harem and keeps on strutting and gobbling until he has served them all. He roosts in the vicinity and repeats the performances every day until the laying season is over or until he becomes emaciated and takes no further interest in the hens.
Audubon (1840), who had far better opportunities for observing the wild turkey than can ever be had again, writes:
I have often been much diverted, while watching two males in fierce conflict, by seeing them move alternately backwards and forwards, as either had obtained a better hold, their wings drooping, their tails partly raised, their body-feathers ruffled, and their heads covered with blood. If, as they thus struggle, and gasp for breath, one of them should lose his hold, his chance is over, for the other, still holding fast, hits him violently with spurs and wings, and in a few minutes brings him to the ground. The moment he is dead, the conqueror treads him under foot, but, what is strange, not with hatred but with all the motions which he employs in caressing the female.
When the male has discovered and made up to the female (whether such a combat has previously taken place or not), if she be more than one year old, she also struts and gobbles, turns round him as he continues strutting, suddenly opens her wings, throws herself towards him, as if to put a stop to his idle delay, lays herself down, and receives his dilatory caresses. If the cock meet a young hen, he alters his mode of procedure. He struts in a different manner, less pompously and more energetically, moves with rapidity, sometimes rises from the ground, taking a short flight around the hen, as in the manner of some Pigeons, the Red-breasted Thrush, and many other birds, and on alighting, runs with all his might, at the same time rubbing his tail and wings along the ground, for the space of perhaps ten yards. He then draws near the timorous female, allays her fears by purring, and when she at length assents, caresses her.
About the middle of April, when the season is dry, the hens begin to look out for a place in which to deposit their eggs. This place requires to be as much as possible concealed from the eye of the Crow, as that bird often watches the Turkey when going to her nest, and, waiting in the neighbourhood until she has left it, removes and eats the eggs. The nest, which consists of a few withered leaves, is placed on the ground, in a hollow scooped out, by the side of a log, or in the fallen top of a dry leafy tree, under a thicket of sumach or briars, or a few feet within the edge of a canebrake, but always in a dry place. The eggs, which are of a dull cream colour, sprinkled with red dots, sometimes amount to twenty, although the more usual number is from ten to fifteen. When depositing her eggs, the female always approaches the nest with extreme caution, scarcely ever taking the same course twice; and when about to leave them, covers them carefully with leaves, so that it is very difficult for a person who may have seen the bird to discover the nest. Indeed, few Turkeys' nests are found.
When an enemy passes within sight of a female, while laying or sitting she never moves, unless she knows that she has been discovered, but crouches lower until he has passed. I have frequently approached within five or six paces of a nest, of which I was previously aware, on assuming an air of carelessness, and whistling or talking to myself, the female remaining undisturbed; whereas if I went cautiously towards it, she would never suffer me to approach within twenty paces, but would run off, with her tail spread on one side, to a distance of about twenty or thirty yards, when assuming a stately gait, she would walk about deliberately, uttering every now and then a cluck. They seldom abandon their nest, when it has been discovered by men; but, I believe, never go near it again when a snake or other animal has sucked any of the eggs. If the eggs have been destroyed or carried off, the female soon yelps again for a male; but, in general, she rears only a single brood each season. Several hens sometimes associate together, I believe for their mutual safety, deposit their eggs in the same nest, and rear their broods together. I once found three sitting on forty-two eggs. In such cases, the common nest is always watched by one of the females, so that no Crow, Raven, or perhaps even Pole-cat, dares approach it.
Bendire (1892) refers to nests found in Nebraska and Texas in more open situations. One is described as "a simple affair, on a grassy hillside, in an exposed position, and lined with dead grass."
George M. Sutton (1929) describes a nest in Pennsylvania, as follows:
On June 6, on a rocky mountainside about twelve miles from Lock Haven, Clinton County, I examined a nest which held seventeen well-incubated eggs. On the day before there had been eighteen eggs in it; it is thought that a skunk or fox had disturbed the nest, though the female bird evidently had been sitting closely most of the time. This nest was built among small, angular rocks, and, while not very well hidden from above, it was screened on all sides by thick laurel, which made photography difficult. The female bird was either very unsuspicious or remarkably brave, for she did not leave her nest while we were near. Her broad back, with its squamate pattern and full greenish lights, was difficult to discern among the foliage and the intricate interlacing shadows. When first seen her neck was stretched out at full length in front of her, and her plumage was spread and flattened out noticeably. When she realized she was being observed she drew her head back and moved it slowly about in a snakelike manner, while she gave forth strange hissing and grunting sounds. When she had become accustomed to us she again stretched her neck out in front of her. Occasionally, when disturbed, she gave a characteristic 'quit, quit.'
Eggs.--The normal set for the wild turkey numbers from 8 to 15 eggs. The smaller sets are laid by young birds. As many as 18 or 20 eggs have been found in a nest, which were probably laid by one bird. Occasionally two, or even three, birds lay in the same nest, taking turns at incubating or guarding the nest; in such cases the nest may contain many more eggs.
The eggs are usually ovate in shape, but sometimes they are short ovate, or elongate ovate and quite pointed. The shell is smooth, with little or no gloss. The ground colors vary from "pale ochraceous-buff" or "pale pinkish buff" to "cartridge buff" or buffy white. They are more or less evenly marked with small spots and fine dots of "light vinaceous-drab," "pale purple-drab," "clay color," or "pinkish buff."
The measurements of 56 eggs average 62.6 by 44.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 68.5 by 46, 64.5 by 48.5, 59 by 45, and 64.7 by 42.4 millimeters.
Young.--The period of incubation is 28 days and this duty is performed by the female alone in seclusion. The male does not even know the location of the nest. The following is from Audubon's (1840) matchless account:
The mother will not leave her eggs, when near hatching, under any circumstances, while life remains. She will even allow an enclosure to be made around her, and thus suffer imprisonment, rather than abandon them. I once witnessed the hatching of a brood of Turkeys, which I watched for the purpose of securing them together with the parent. I concealed myself on the ground within a very few feet, and saw her raise herself half the length of her legs, look anxiously upon the eggs, cluck with a sound peculiar to the mother on such occasions, carefully remove each half-empty shell, and with her bill caress and dry the young birds, that already stood tottering and attempting to make their way out of the nest. Yes, I have seen this, and have left mother and young to better care than mine could have proved, to the care of their Creator and mine. I have seen them all emerge from the shell, and, in a few moments after, tumble, roll, and push each other forward with astonishing and inscrutable instinct.
Before leaving the nest with her young brood, the mother shakes herself in a violent manner, picks and adjusts the feathers about her belly, and assumes quite a different aspect. She alternately inclines her eyes obliquely upwards and sideways, stretching out her neck, to discover hawks or other enemies, spreads her wings a little as she walks, and softly clucks to keep her innocent offspring close to her. They move slowly along and, as the hatching generally takes place in the afternoon, they frequently return to the nest to spend the first night there. After this they remove to some distance, keeping on the highest undulated grounds, the mother dreading rainy weather, which is extremely dangerous to the young in this tender state, when they are only covered by a kind of soft hairy down of surprising delicacy. In very rainy seasons, Turkeys are scarce, for if once completely wetted the young seldom recover. To prevent the disastrous effects of rainy weather the mother, like a skillful physician, plucks the buds of the spice-wood bush and gives them to her young.
In about a fortnight the young birds, which had previously rested on the ground, leave it and fly at night to some very large low branch, where they place themselves under the deeply curved wings of their kind and careful parent, dividing themselves for that purpose into two nearly equal parties. After this they leave the woods during the day and approach the natural glades or prairies in search of strawberries and subsequently of dewberries, blackberries, and grasshoppers, thus obtaining abundant food and enjoying the beneficial influence of the sun's rays. They roll themselves in deserted ants' nests to clear their growing feathers of the loose scales and prevent ticks and other vermin from attacking them, these insects being unable to bear the odor of the earth in which ants have been. The young Turkeys now advance rapidly in growth and in the month of August are able to secure themselves from unexpected attacks of Wolves, Foxes, Lynxes, and even Cougars by rising quickly from the ground by the help of their powerful legs, and reaching with ease the highest branches of the tallest trees. The young cocks show the tuft on the breast about this time and begin to gobble and strut, while the young hens purr and leap in the manner which I have already described.
C. J. Pennock writes to me that in northern Florida, where the turkeys are somewhat intermediate but rather nearer the northern form, a cold, wet spell late in April or early May produces considerable mortality among the young and that after such an unfavorable season turkeys are much scarcer for one or more years. The weather also has much to do with the time of laying. He has seen young able to fly as early as May 26 and a brood of very young as late as July 9. At times he has seen two hens together with their combined broods of 20 or more young. The young are able to fly up into the trees when about one-third grown. The broods of young remain with their mothers all through the winter and until the spring mating time comes.
Plumages.--In the wild-turkey chick the crown is "pinkish cinnamon" and the back a somewhat lighter shade of the same, fading off to still lighter shades on the breast and flanks; the crown and upper parts are heavily spotted and blotched with dark, rich browns, "bister" to "Vandyke brown"; the sides of the head and underparts are "pale pinkish buff" to "ivory yellow," nearly white on the chin and throat and almost "straw yellow" on the belly.
As with the quail and grouse, the young turkey starts to grow its wings when a small chick; these are soon followed by the plumage of the back, breast, and flanks; the tail comes later, followed finally by the head and belly. The juvenal feathers of the back are "walnut brown," edged with "russet," with a broad median "russet" stripe, a whitish tip, and large black areas near the tip; the wing coverts are similar, but in duller colors and with less black; the scapulars are "sayal brown," peppered with black and spotted or barred with black along the outer edge and at the tip; the tertials and secondaries are "hair brown," marked like the scapulars on the outer edge; the primaries are "hair brown," mottled and peppered with buffy white; the under parts are "fuscous," with whitish tips and shaft streaks; the tail is barred with dusky and "pinkish cinnamon."
Before the young bird is fully grown, in September, a postjuvenal molt takes place; this is a complete molt, except that the two outer primaries on each wing are retained for a year. In this first winter plumage the sexes begin to differentiate, the males becoming much larger than the females, but the plumages of the two sexes are very much alike, and they resemble the adult female. Wilson (1832) says:
On the approach of the first winter the young males show a rudiment of the beard or fascicle of hairs on the breast, consisting of a mere tubercle, and attempt to strut and gobble; the second year the hairy tuft is about three inches long; in the third the turkey attains its full stature, although it certainly increases in size and beauty for several years longer.
Audubon's (1840) statement is similar.
Wilson (1832) says of the female:
Females four years old have their full size and colouring; they then possess the pectoral fascicle, four or five inches long (which, according to Mr. Audubon, they exhibit a little in the second year, if not barren), but this fascicle is much thinner than that of the male. The barren hens do not obtain this distinction until a very advanced age; and, being preferable for the table, the hunters single them from the flock and kill them in preference to the others. The female wild turkey is more frequently furnished with the hairy tuft than the tame one, and this appendage is gained earlier in life. The great number of young hens without it has no doubt given rise to the incorrect assertion of a few writers that the female is always destitute of it.
Adults apparently have only one complete postnuptial molt in August and September. A fully grown gobbler seldom weighs more than 20 or 25 pounds, even when in good condition; there are some, apparently authentic, records of birds weighing between 30 and 40 pounds, but such cases must be very rare; reported records of 50 pounds are unreliable.
contained 15.57 percent of animal matter and 84.43 percent of vegetable matter. The animal food consisted of insects--15.15 percent--and miscellaneous invertebrates, such as spiders, snails, and myriapods--0.42 percent. Grasshoppers furnished 13.92 percent, and beetles, flies, caterpillars, and other insects 1.23 percent. The 84.43 percent of the bird's vegetable food was distributed as follows: "Browse," 24.80 percent; fruit, 32.98 percent; mast, 4.60 percent; other seeds, 20.12 percent; miscellaneous vegetable matter, 1.93 percent.
Judd says that they are very fond of grasshoppers and crickets, and that
during the Nebraska invasion of Rocky Mountain locusts, Professor Aughey examined the contents of six wild turkey stomachs and crops collected during August and September. Every bird had eaten locusts, in all amounting to 259. The wild turkey has been known also to feed on the cotton worm (Alabama argillacea), the leaf hoppers, and the leaf-eating beetles (Chrysomela suturalis). The grasshopper (Arnilia sp.) and the thousand-legs (Julus) form part of the turkey's bill of fare. Tadpoles and small lizards are also included.
Of a bird shot in Virginia, he says:
Ten percent of its food was animal matter and 90 percent vegetable. The animal part consisted of 1 harvest spider (Phalangidae), 1 centipede, 1 thousand-legs (Julus), 1 ichneumon fly (Ichneumon unifasiculata), 2 yellow-jackets (Vespa germanica), 1 grasshopper, and 3 katydids (Cyrtophyllus perspiculatus). The vegetable food was wild black cherries, grapes, berries of flowering dogwood and sour gum, 2 chestnuts 25 whole acorns (Quercus palustris and Q. velutina), a few alder catkins, seeds of jewel weed, and 500 seeds of tick-trefoil (Meibomia nudiflora). Another turkey also shot in December, had eaten a ground beetle, an ichneumon fly, 2 wheel bugs, 10 yellow-jackets, a meadow grasshopper, 75 red-legged grasshoppers, a few sour-gum berries, some pine seeds (with a few pine needles, probably taken accidentally), several acorns, a quarter of a cupful of wheat, and a little corn.
Various other kinds of berries, fruits, and insects are doubtless eaten when available, as turkeys will eat almost anything they can find in these lines.
Behavior.--The turkey's ordinary method of locomotion is walking or running; the long powerful legs enable these birds to travel long distances and very rapidly on foot. But they are also strong fliers when hard pressed or when necessity requires it, and can fly for a considerable distance or even across wide rivers. What few turkeys I have seen in flight looked to me like huge ruffed grouse, with long tails spread and heavy wings beating rapidly, though the speed of these large heavy birds is proportionately much less. Audubon (1840) says:
Their usual mode of progression is what is termed walking, during which they frequently open each wing partially and successively, replacing them again by folding them over each other, as if their weight were too great. Then, as if to amuse themselves, they will run a few steps, open both wings and fan their sides, in the manner of the common fowl, and often take two or three leaps in the air and shake themselves. During melting snowfalls, they will travel to an extraordinary distance and are then followed in vain, it being impossible for hunters of any description to keep up with them. They have then a dangling and straggling way of running, which, awkward as it may seem, enables them to outstrip any other animal. I have often, when on a good horse, been obliged to abandon the attempt to put them up, after following them for several hours.
While traveling about during fall and winter the sexes gather into separate flocks, the females forming the largest flocks; young males also flock by themselves and, for the most part, keep away from the old gobblers. When flocks of old and young males happen to meet they do not ordinarily quarrel; but they seem to have different interests.
What few turkeys still survive, in regions where they are much hunted, have developed a high degree of shrewdness and cunning. An instance of cunning is given by Dr. J. M. Wheaton (1882) as follows:
As if aware that their safety depended on their preserving an incognito when observed, they effect the unconcern of their tame relatives so long as a threatened danger is passive or unavoidable. I have known them to remain quietly perched upon a fence while a team passed by; and one occasion knew a couple of hunters to be so confused by the actions of a flock of five, which deliberately walked in front of them, mounted a fence, and disappeared leisurely over a low hill before they were able to decide them to be wild. No sooner were they out of sight, than they took to their legs and then to their wings, soon placing a wide valley between them and their now amazed and mortified pursuers.
Wild turkeys have a preference for roosting over water, and they will often go a long way in order to obtain such a roost. The backwater from the overflowing streams when it spreads out widely through the standing timber of the river bottoms, affords them great comfort; also the cypress ponds to be found in our southern river districts. They evidently fancy that there is greater safety in such places.
Voice.--The wild turkey has quite a vocabulary, according to E. A. McIlhenny (1914), a language with various meanings. If the strutting gobbler thinks he has heard the cluck or yelp of a calling hen, cluck, cluck, keow, keow, keow, he drops his broad wings, partly spreads his tail, and listens; then vut-v-r-r-o-o-o-m-m-i comes the booming strut, and gil-obble-obble-obble. Then let the hen give her low quavering yelp, keow-keow, keow, and he will yell out in a fierce and prolonged rattle. More calls from the hen, keow, keow, kee, kee, or cluck, keow, ku-ku, one interspersed with loud gobblings until the siren call of the hen, cut-o-r-r-r, cut, keow, keow, keow, indicates that she has gone to him and all is quiet. Should any threatening danger intrude on this pretty love scene, a warning note is given, cluck, put, put, or put, o-r-r-r-r, or perhaps the turkeys walk quietly away saying, quit, quit, in irritated alarm.
Of the numerous enemies of the Wild Turkey, the most formidable, excepting man, are the Lynx, the Snowy Owl, and the Virginian Owl. The Lynx sucks their eggs and is extremely expert at seizing both young and old, which he effects in the following manner. When he has discovered a flock of turkeys he follows them at a distance for some time, until he ascertains the direction in which they are proceeding. He then makes a rapid circular movement, gets in advance of the flock, and lays himself down in ambush until the birds come up, when he springs upon one of them by a single bound and secures it. While once sitting in the woods on the banks of the Wabash, I observed two large Turkey-cocks on a log by the river, pluming and picking themselves. I watched their movements for awhile, when of a sudden one of them flew across the river, while I perceived the other struggling under the grasp of a Lynx.
Game.--It is probably safe to say that the wild turkey is the largest and grandest game bird in the world, certainly in North America. It is not so well known and not so popular as the quail or ruffed grouse, because comparatively few sportsmen have had an opportunity to hunt it, on account of its growing scarcity and the remoteness of its haunts. What few turkeys remain within easy reach of civilization have become so highly educated that it requires considerable experience and skill to outwit them. Their eyes cannot easily recognize a stationary object, but they are very quick to detect the slightest movement. Their sense of hearing is very acute, and they are always on the alert for approaching enemies, especially human beings. As a food bird the turkey is unsurpassed both in quantity and quality.
The methods employed in hunting turkeys are, or have been, many and varied. An interesting method of capturing turkeys, in the days when they were plentiful and unsuspicious, was thus described by John Hunter in 1824, as quoted by Albert H. Right (1914) in his excellent history of this bird:
The turkey is not valued, though when fat, the Indians frequently take them alive in the following manner. Having prepared from the skin an apt resemblance of the living bird, they follow the turkey trails or haunts till they discover a flock, when they secrete themselves behind a log in such a manner as to elude discovery, partially displaying their decoy, and imitate the gobbling noise of the cock. This management generally succeeds to draw off first one and then another from their companions which, from their social and unsuspecting habits, thus successively place themselves literally in the hands of the hunters, who quickly dispatch them and await for the arrival of more. This species of hunting, with fishing, is more practiced by the boys than the older Indians, who seldom, in fact, undertake them unless closely pressed by hunger.
A common method of capture, referred to by many writers, was to trap them in an enclosure, or pen, made of logs. The top was covered with logs, leaving narrow open spaces between them. A trench was dug, sloping gradually down, under the log wall and up into the pen. Corn or other grain was sprinkled along this trench and plenty of it spread on the inside of the pen to tempt the turkeys to enter. When, after eating all they wanted, they attempted to escape, they constantly looked upward for an opening but seldom, if ever, had sense enough to crawl out the way they had come in. Large numbers were caught in this way.
Audubon (1840) says that as many as 18 turkeys have been caught in a pen at one time, and as many as 76 within a period of two months.
One of the most popular methods, which is still widely practiced, is calling the gobbler by imitating the call of the hen during the mating season. This requires the utmost skill, experience, practice, and thorough knowledge of the habits and haunts of the birds. Much has been written in various books and numerous articles in sporting magazines on how to succeed in this. The instruments used in calling may be simply the leaf of a tree held between the lips, the box or trough call, the splinter and slate, or a new clay pipe; but the commonest and most effective call is made from the wing bone of a hen turkey. The hunter must know how to use these perfectly, for a false note will drive the turkey away, perhaps never to return. He must also be able to keep perfectly still for a long time, with his gun, or rifle, trained on the spot where he expects the turkey to appear, for the slightest visible movement would spoil his chance. He would better be well concealed, but success may be had, even if he is in plain sight, if seated against a stump or tree large enough to conceal the outline of his body. As to the use of the calls, he had better study the various seductive notes of the hen, the turkey language, or, better still, learn them from an experienced hunter.
Tracking turkeys in the snow on a clear cold winter day is splendid sport. It has been well described by Edwyn Sandys (1904). In following the flock of turkeys a single track may turn off to one side; this means a tired bird, which will soon crouch to rest. If he carries a shotgun, the hunter should follow this bird, for he will soon flush it and get a flying shot. But, if carrying a rifle, he should follow the main flock; sooner or later he will get a long shot at some of them, though it may be a long chase unless the snow is soft and deep. Should the birds take wing they will fly in a straight line, indicated by the direction of the long steps taken in rising, and the trail can be taken up again.
Coursing turkeys with greyhounds, as practiced in the more open western country is exciting sport. It is also vividly described by Sandys (1904). The hunter on horseback, accompanied by a good greyhound, finds his turkeys feeding out on an open plain and tries to flush one headed for the open. The turkey's first flight is his longest, hotly pursued by dog, horse, and man. If the bird comes down and tries to run, he is soon overtaken. His flights and runs gradually grow shorter and shorter, until he becomes exhausted and is caught.
Well-trained turkey dogs are useful in chasing winged birds, which a man could never catch. Audubon (1840) says:
Good dogs scent the turkeys when in large flocks at a great distance; I may venture to say half a mile away, if the wind is right. Should the dog be well trained to the sport, he will set off at full speed on getting the scent and in silence until he sees the birds, when he instantly barks, and, running among them, forces the whole flock to take to the trees in different directions. This is of great advantage to the hunter, for, should all the turkeys go one way, they would soon leave the perches and run again; but when they are separated by the dog, a person accustomed to the sport finds the birds easily and shoots them at pleasure.
Fall.--Turkeys are not migratory, in the strict sense of the word, but they are much given to extensive wanderings, mainly in the fall and winter, in search of food, which varies in abundance from one season to another. Audubon (1840) writes:
About the beginning of October, when scarcely any of the seeds and fruits have yet fallen from the trees, these birds assemble in flocks, and gradually move towards the rich bottom lands of the Ohio and Mississippi. The males, or, as they are more commonly called, the gobblers, associate in parties from 10 to 100, and search for food apart from the females; while the latter are seen either advancing singly, each with its brood of young, then about two-thirds grown, or in connexion with other families, forming parties often amounting to 70 or 80 individuals, all intent on shunning the old cocks, which, even when the young birds have attained this size, will fight with and often destroy them by repeated blows on the head. Old and young, however, all move in the same course, and on foot, unless their progress be interrupted by a river, or the hunter's dog force them to take wing. When they come upon a river, they betake themselves to the highest eminences, and there often remain a whole day, or sometimes two, as if for the purpose of consultation. During this time the males are heard gobbling, calling, and making much ado, and are seen strutting about, as if to raise their courage to a pitch befitting the emergency. Even the females and young assume something of the same pompous demeanour, spread out their tails, and run around each other, purring loudly, and performing extravagant leaps. At length, when the weather appears settled, and all around is quiet, the whole party mounts to the tops of the highest trees, whence, at a signal, consisting of a single cluck given by a leader, the flock takes flight for the opposite shore. The old and fat birds easily get over, even should the river be a mile in breadth; but the young and less robust frequently fall into the water, not to be drowned, however, as might be imagined. They bring their wings close to their body, spread out their tail as a support, stretch forward their neck, and striking out their legs with great vigour, proceed rapidly towards the shore; on approaching which, should they find it too steep for landing, they cease their exertions for a few moments, float down the stream until they come to an accessible part, and by a violent effort generally extricate themselves from the water. It is remarkable, that immediately after thus crossing a large stream, they ramble about for some time, as if bewildered. In this state, they fall an easy prey to the hunter.
Winter.--During winter, when the
snow is too deep or soft to travel on the ground, turkeys often
remain in the trees for long periods, subsisting on buds and what
fruits, nuts, and berries they can find above the snow. They are
great travelers, however, in light or on hard snow. When hard
pressed for food they sometimes venture into farmyards or grain
fields, or along roadsides or railroad tracks where grain has been
spilled. At such times they can be easily baited by scattering
corn in such places.
Wild Turkey* Meleagris gallopavo [Eastern Turkey]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1932. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 326-339. United States Government Printing Office