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With Thanksgiving near, our thoughts turn to turkeys

They might look clumsy in the field, but wild turkeys can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on foot and 50 mph in the air.

FALLS VILLAGE — Wildlife expert Ginny Apple gave an online audience a guided tour through the world of wild turkeys on Saturday, Nov. 14. The talk was sponsored by the David M. Hunt Library.

Apple said the turkey got its name because the Spanish conquistadors brought the birds back to Spain, where they found their way to buyers and breeders in what is now the country of Turkey.

Commercial trading brought the turkey to Great Britain, prior to the Pilgrims leaving for the New World.

So the English knew about turkeys before they began their travels to North America.

Native Americans valued the turkey not only for its meat but also for its bones and feathers. 

“They used the whole bird,” Apple said.

There were a lot to use. Apple said it is estimated that the pre-Columbian wild turkey population of North America was something along the order of 10 million birds.

The Colonial era (and subsequent events) were not kind to the wild turkey. Settlers cleared forests for farming, and shot the turkeys for food. Between loss of habitat and hunting, the wild turkey was gone from Connecticut by the 1830s, Apple said.

Apple debunked the popular notion that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the national symbol. She said Franklin thought the turkey should be the symbol of the Order of Cincinnatus, not the new United States. 

Although, she said, Franklin thought the eventual national bird, the bald eagle, to be of “bad moral character.”

In the post-Industrial Revolution period, Connecticut slowly became reforested, and the wild turkeys returned, assisted by a 1975 state program in which 25 birds were released at the Great Mountain Forest, which is in Norfolk and Falls Village.

Apple said the wild turkey was “fully restored” in Connecticut by the early 1990s, with an estimated 40,000 birds in the state today, and some seven million in the U.S.

The Eastern wild turkey is the species most people are familiar with, and the one with the greatest range. Apple said there are about 5.3 million Eastern wild turkeys in the country.

Other wild turkeys include the Osceola (in Florida), Merriam’s, the Ocellated turkey and the Rio Grande wild turkey.

Wild turkeys are opportunistic feeders, eating plant matter, berries and insects.

They like salt, which is why they hang around roadsides and eat the salty residue of de-icing spreads.

They might look clumsy in the field, but wild turkeys can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on foot and 50 mph in the air.

Two hens often combine their chicks (or “poults”) into one group and watch over them. The males do not take part at all, Apple said.

“Bears are afraid of them,” Apple said.”It cracks me up.” 

She said the bears around her home in Barkhamsted take off when they hear the turkeys approaching.

Turkeys are “sophisticated talkers,” and Apple played several samples of different kinds of turkey sounds.

They also have excellent eyesight, including the ability to see ultraviolet light. Turkeys breed in the spring.The eggs are in a ground nest for 25-30 days and hatch in late March or early April, with about 4 to 17 eggs per nest and a survival rate of less than 50 percent.

After just a few days the hens stop feeding the poults and leave them to find their own food, mostly bugs. Apple said the state collects information from citizens about wild turkeys.

And sometimes turkeys make the news for the wrong reasons, such as a case of turkeys chasing a mail carrier in New jersey, or getting into people’s yards to get at the bird feeder. 

Or, in Apple’s case, a turkey that took to sitting on her car, pecking at its reflection in the glass.

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