15-21 November 2003
Installment #198--Visitor #msn spaces tracking

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In 1982 when we moved to what is now Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, the 11-acre property had been used for row crops or cattle grazing for perhaps a century. The land was nearly wide open, with a few big specimen trees scattered among early successional Broomsedge fields. From our old farmhouse it was easy to see nearly every corner of the tract, and although we had unimpeded views of sunsets and soaring raptors, we never saw the kind of wildlife that feels more comfortable in thicker vegetation. Over the past two decades, however, nature has taken back the land and turned it into dense, mixed woods. These days, scarcely a week goes by we don't encounter a skittish White-tailed Deer while walking our trails. Even more surprisingly, the Center also has become haven to an even more elusive animal--the Wild Turkey.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We first suspected there were Wild Turkeys at the Center in 1995, when we found a single telltale track in soft, sandy mud along the pond edge (below left). Three long straight lines made by front toes could have come from a Great Blue Heron, but the turkey's hind toe makes a distinctive mark absent in the heron's track. Our suspicions were confirmed when, a bit further down the trail, we spied some turkey droppings filled with seeds of Winged Sumac. We were always on alert after that for views or sounds of this big bird, but years passed with only occasional sightings of tracks or scat. Finally, on 20 June 2002--as we walked a trail bordering a large field on neighboring property--a Wild Turkey hen clucked and strutted in and out of view and became the 166th species seen at the Center.

Since then we've heard the turkeys on numerous occasions, and several times we've found single feathers dropped along the path. Each feather had two distinctive parts (below)--a flat, broad outer tip with a subterminal band of coppery iridescence, and a super-soft inner plumulaceous section with excellent insulating properties. The overall structure and appearance of these castoff feathers left no doubt they came from a Wild Turkey.

Wild Turkeys are native to the Carolina Piedmont--and to nearly all of the contiguous U.S., where they were relatively common prior to the arrival of Europeans. Habitat destruction and over-hunting took a gradual toll on turkey populations until about 1950, when their numbers were perilously low and they had been extirpated from 15 states in their original range. Thanks to nationwide state and federal efforts to re-stock Wild Turkeys and reclaim lost habitat, these big birds have rebounded dramatically--as in South Carolina where Wild Turkeys are found again in all 46 counties. The ultimate signs of success for game management are the following statistics: across South Carolina in 1970 only 132 Wild Turkeys were taken and reported by hunters, while in 1998 the number grew to an astounding 11,391.

These days, some Wild Turkey flocks have become more tolerant of humans, and it's possible to see them foraging along highways and even in subdivisions. Males ("toms" or "gobblers") strut around in early spring (below left), spreading their tails and vocalizing while trying to attract the attention of any nearby hens. During courtship, males also show off several important anatomical parts that have some of our favorite names in all of nature: "snoods," "wattles," "dewlaps," and "caruncles." All are folds of naked, blood-engorged skin that hang from the gobbler's head or neck in some red, blue, or purple hue--just the thing to catch the eye of a hormonally heightened hen.

As usually is the case in the Animal Kingdom, the female chooses the male with whom she wishes to mate--probably the one that struts the best and that has the best snoods. After making her selection the hen builds a "nest"--just a shallow depression on the ground or in dry, dead leaves--and begins laying an egg a day for 10-12 days. When the clutch is complete she starts incubating, and about 25-30 days later the poults hatch almost simultaneously. Newly hatched turkeys are precocial--covered with down, with their eyes open, and fully capable of running around and pecking at anything that appears to be edible. The female broods what we call her "turklets" for two weeks, after which they can fly for short distances and soon act like adult turkeys by roosting in trees at night. Although toms have nothing to do with their offspring, the hen and her young stay together most of the summer and fall, perhaps longer. By the time the breeding season starts, however, the family unit has dissolved, replaced by single gender flocks intent on the business of starting another generation.

Turkeys are gallinaceous (chicken-like) birds in the Phasianidae that includes such fowl as pheasants, peacocks, and grouse. The only two true turkeys in the world have their own subfamily (Meleagridinae); these are our familiar Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, and the Ocellated Turkey, M. ocellata (above right), found in the Yucatan, Belize, and northern Guatemala. There are five subspecies of M. gallopavo in the U.S., including M. g. silvestris--the Eastern Wild Turkey, which occurs in the Carolinas. An extinct subspecies, M. g. gallopavo, is believed to be the one encountered by conquistadors in Mexico and taken back to Europe, where it was inbred heavily. It is this bird that has returned to North America as the turkey that graces most Thanksgiving tables. Domesticated turkeys (below left) are a far cry from their ancestors and modern conspecifics--covered with white feathers and lacking in the survival skills of their wily wild cousins. (Contrary to urban legend, commercially raised turkeys are NOT so dumb that they will look up at rain until it fills their nostrils and they drown. They do panic and stampede, however, and gobble in cacophanous chorus if startled by thunder or a loud yell.)

It is also true that few domestic table turkeys can fly. They've been bred to have such huge breast muscles they likely couldn't get off the ground if they wanted to, so you're not likely to find them roosting in tall vegetation like their wild relatives in the woods. That's just as well, because Wild Turkeys are pretty well-camouflaged, while their tame relatives would disrupt the landscape by looking like giant snowballs in the tops of our pines. Here at Hilton Pond Center we're satisfied to have our plump, juicy, eating turkeys on the table, our wild ones in the trees.

Gobble, Gobble to All, and Happy Thanksgiving!

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Three photos of Wild, Ocellated, and Domesticated Turkeys
from the public domain; photographers not known

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
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Oct 15 to Mar 15
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

15-21 November 2003

Hermit Thrush--1

* = New species for 2003

1 species
1 individuals

61 species
1,004 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
43,118 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (1)
12/12/98--after 5th year unknown

Tufted Titmouse (1)
06/11/02--2nd year female

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

--Due to travel, rainy weather, and illness, we managed to run mist nets only for a few hours on one day this week, capturing just a
Hermit Thrush. Of much greater significance in the low number of captures is the dearth of birds such as White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and House Finches that normally would be coming to our feeders and traps in November. It may be that an abundance of natural foods has them out feeding in the boondocks rather than at the feeders.

--We also netted an ancient Yellow-rumped Warbler that we banded on 12 Dec 1998 as a bird of unknown age. At the youngest, this individual at least is in its sixth year and approaching the species' known longevity mark of six years and 11 months.

--A hatch-year male Rufous Hummingbird was banded on 16 Nov 2003 at Dacusville NC.

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this website--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this website, contact the Webmaster

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