Friday, January 6, 2012

What Is The Largest Game Bird In North America?

by James Northrop (GSWA Volunteer)

Last Thanksgiving, our family gathered for the traditional turkey dinner. Uncle George joined us this year, and after generous slices of turkey and pumpkin pie, George and I settled down in the living room and searched the TV for a football game that would hold our interest.

I mentioned to George that turkey dinners were one of my favorite meals, and he heartily agreed. Relaxing in his comfortable chair, George’s eyes took on a distant look as he seemed to think back on his days as a young man. Then he told me that hunting wild turkey had been his favorite sport, and that he thought wild turkeys were one of the most amazing game birds in North America, in addition to being the largest.

I was surprised to hear this, but George explained that wild turkeys are very different from the domestic turkey we had just eaten. George said domestic (farm grown) turkeys weigh about twice as much as a wild turkey, and that most are so heavy that they are not able to fly. Whereas, wild turkeys spend their nights in the low branches of trees, and to do this they must be able to fly. George added that wild turkeys typically live in the wooded areas of eastern and southern North America. They spend their days foraging for food, like acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries.

George was chuckling when he said, “Did you know that because of their popularity for holiday feasting, the wild turkey may be the most famous bird in North America? In fact, Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey, not the Bald Eagle, the national bird of the United States.”

George noted that peacocks are not the only birds who use their fancy tail feathers to attract a mate. Each spring, male turkeys try to befriend as many females as possible, he said. The male turkeys puff up their bodies and spread their tail feathers (just like a peacock). They grunt, make a “gobble, gobble” sound and strut about shaking their feathers. George called this a “fancy turkey trot” demonstration that the male must think will help attract females for mating. “I’ve seen some human males behave like this, too,” George said.

“Where did the wild turkey get its name?” I asked George. He said that when the Spanish first found the bird in the Americas more than 400 years ago, they took it back to Europe. The English mistakenly thought it was a bird they had been calling a “turkey,” so they gave it the same name. The other type of turkey (the “original” turkey) was actually from Africa, but had come to England by way of the country of Turkey. “The name ‘turkey’ stuck,” said George, “even after they realized that the birds were not the same.” Later, the Colonists brought the wild turkey to a different part of North America; this time to New England.

Now George was well into his story of wild turkeys. He noted that by the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat. Wild turkey re-introduction programs began in the 1940’s in various parts of the country. In the 1980’s, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the management of the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge, brought a re-introduction program to the Refuge.

Refuge Manager, Bill Koch, says the re-introduction program at the Refuge has been such a great success that early on some mornings last spring, he saw flocks of 70 to 100 wild turkeys happily gathered. “However,” cautions Bill Koch, “remember that the hunting of wild turkeys inside the Refuge is forbidden. The farmers and property owners outside the Refuge may hunt wild turkey legally in the short April and November wild turkey hunting* seasons, if they have the proper licenses and do not hunt on the grounds of the Refuge. Importantly also, they must report their game kills, which are limited to one wild turkey of either sex per day during the one week season.

At that moment George and I were interrupted by a loud crash in the kitchen. We found that my enterprising dog was feasting on the turkey carcass he had just pulled off the table onto the floor. We had to spoil his fun, but I was pleased that our dog has a very refined sense of taste in game birds!


*Editor's note: While turkey hunters are not banned from using lead-shot ammunition to take their game in the state of New Jersey, they should be aware that lead poses a significant environmental threat, especially in areas where hunting is frequent or target practice is taken. This toxic metal, which can produce neurological and development damage after prolonged exposure, has the potential to contaminate nearby water sources and enter the food chain, especially when mistaken for food by birds and other animals. In fact, the frequency of lead poisoning found in ducks, geese, and other wetland birds after ingesting spent shot led the federal government to place a nationwide ban on hunting waterfowl with lead-based ammunition in 1991. Inland game, such as wild turkey, is another story.

In order to avoid contaminating hunting and shooting grounds with lead, sportsmen are advised to take all steps necessary to ensure that their equipment is capable of firing non-toxic lead-free ammunition.

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