Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wild Turkey

I can only think of two reasons a person would decide not to live in the Oakland Hills. If you have children, the first is a biggie – the school system. Budgets have been eviscerated and teachers laid off, and there's no silver lining. The other reason is as sensible as it is theoretical. The peaceful, eminently walkable Oakland Hills, with their Eucalyptus Groves, backyard redwood trees, forest fauna and breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, sit right atop the dreaded Hayward Fault. Personally, I realize parking my butt here is seismically unwise but I love it – the cool, moist air, the 6-point buck preening on the patio, the occasional, environmentally incorrect whiff of woodsmoke from a neighbor's fireplace, the dense fog giving way to sharp blue skies. Since we moved here from Orinda last Summer, I've been getting my exercise climbing the steep, meandering streets, staking out my new territory.

I was on one of these exploratory ventures, walking briskly, mindful of the waning day, when I came upon a flock of wild turkeys. It wasn't my first turkey encounter. A few weeks earlier, I had stopped to observe two adult birds and a couple of chicken-sized young'uns pecking around someone's front yard. When I pulled out my cell to photograph them, it spooked one of the youngsters. He darted under a car and immediately got stuck. For five long minutes, I could hear him flapping his wings and peeping hysterically. I was just looking around for a stick to try and nudge him to freedom when he managed to extricate himself from the undercarriage.

This time, there were at least a dozen birds milling about, mostly hens. (Immature male turkeys are known as jakes, and adult males are called toms or gobblers).They had taken over the backyard and carport of a small home along the road and were puttering around like they owned the place. Their muted black and brown plumage blended into the mulch and fallen leaves, but their fuschia faces screamed dinosaur. It's a family resemblance: turkeys descend from carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods. Over hundreds of thousands of years, theropods got smaller, developed feathers and evolved into the first birds.

So what are those strange growths on the turkeys' faces? Or rather, on the male turkey's faces. The female,or hen, has a more discrete, pointy profile and a bluish head. The long, flabby red thing that hangs from a Tom turkey's forehead is a snood. The fleshy crimson blob that covers his neck is a wattle, and the bumpy, wart-like growths that give the wattle its texture are caruncles. Snoods and wattles function a bit like mood rings. When the Tom is hot to trot, his facial nasty bits get engorged with blood and become bright red. But if he catches sight of a coyote, or maybe a rifle-toting human, his snood and wattle go blue with fear. And if the Tom isn't feeling well because, maybe, somebody told him his brother was on the menu for Thanksgiving, that jiggly face and neck fade to a pale pinky beige.

This is also a snood. They were big in the forties so they're way overdue for a comeback. This could be your chance to be a trend-setter.

This is also a wattle. On humans, it is not considered sexy.

This is not a waddle. I think it's a case of testicular migration.

Turkeys are sexually dimorphic, meaning the genders are two different sizes. The male can be formidable – larger and brighter in color than the female, and weighing as much as 38 pounds (The biggest wild turkey ever recorded). Turkey hens are daintier, maxing out at around 12 pounds. While turkeys all have 3-toed feet, the toms have an extra "toe", really more of a sharp spur behind each of their lower legs, which they use for fighting. Male turkeys also have a "beard", a tuft of hair-like feathers that grows from the center of their breast. 10-20% of females have a much smaller version of this same feature. Whether the bearded ladies are feistier, I do not know. Both hens and toms have the amazing ability to rotate their heads 360 degrees, like in The Exorcist, minus the projectile vomiting.

After my turkey encounter, I don't need to do research to tell you that they have a wide vocabulary. They cluck, yelp, coo, purr, cackle and tweet. The Toms can also make drumming and spitting sounds using organs in their chests called air sacs. (Air sacs supplement the lungs and all birds have them, because flight requires a high metabolic rate and extra oxygen). The one thing I didn't hear any of my neighborhood turkeys do was gobble. As it turns out, only the males gobble, and only when they are in the mood for love.

Male turkeys are polygamous and mate with as many females as they can. Don't tell the kiddies, but the classic turkey silhouette that's a mainstay of elementary school art projects is actually a turkey come-on. They fan out their tail feathers and puff out their chests to show off their beards and impress the hens. Toms are total bros and like to do their strutting in pairs, usually a dominant bird and a more passive one. The top tom gets the hot hen, and his sidekick gets her girlfriend with the beard. After mating, the females make nests in shallow holes in the ground, which they cover with vegetation. They lay one egg a day over the course of 10-14 days. Once the "poults" hatch, they leave the nest within 24 hours, never to return.

Like their number one predator, man, turkeys are omnivorous. They eat all kinds of plant parts, from tree bark to grasses, seeds, nuts and berries. They have a fondness for insects, and will occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles. The wild turkey population of the United States is estimated at around 7 million, and as their natural territory shrinks, they are moving to the suburbs. A backyard bird feeder is like a candy store to a turkey, and once he starts pecking round your yard, he will quickly take over and invite all his friends. They'll poop where they please, snack on your flowers and vegetables, scratch up your car and patio furniture and maybe even go after your dog. If turkeys get over their fear of humans, they can get nasty and have been known to attack people – not unreasonable behavior considering our annual November ritual. But now that they're starting to organize, they just might put Thanksgiving out of business. I hear the National Wild Turkey Federation has thousands of members.

Pix from my turkey encounter

Side Dishes

Yes, they really do descend from dinosaurs

Take pride in your wattle

This claims to be the National Wild Turkey Federation, but the members are all human.

Reporter gets attacked by wild turkey

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