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July-September 2013                                                       Lopez Island, Pacific Northwest

I'm a relatively new birder. I've known about birds in a general way, and marveled at their beauty, but real birds have always felt so unapproachable and elusive, it's seemed impossible to identify them, much less understand them. Such strange creatures...delicate but strong, skittish but brave too. Recently, with some leisure time and encouragement, and strategies like hanging birdfeeders, I've been paying more attention and learning a little of their stories. Like the Golden-Crowned Sparrow who started singing in the fir trees a few days ago, and then joined the finches foraging sunflower seeds under the feeder. Was he at my feeder last winter? Where has he been over the summer? What is his story?

Following a particular wild bird's life beyond a single observation is one reason I've been so intrigued by the family of turkeys in my neighborhood over the last few months. Just glimpses, but I'm fairly sure these are the same birds, growing up as I watch. I can't identify an individual turkey, not having the perceptive ability of crows (who can tell one human from another), but this is the only family with this age youngsters I know of in the neighborhood.

8/17 large family
One day in late July when I came home from errands I found a family of turkeys in my yard. Out on the lawn I heard anxious turkey voices and instantly saw the problem. The very young poults, a week old or less, were scattered around the yard, and the hen paced back and forth calling and listening. I counted seven poults but there must have been at least one more, missing, from her behavior. I have two cats, and these chicks would be easy prey for them; possibly one had been panicked into hiding somewhere before I arrived, becoming separated from the family. Even though I stood guard between the poults and the cats, I couldn't imagine how the hen would keep the seven safe while also rescuing the missing youngster. She passed close by me several times, we exchanged glances, but she was uninterested in me, rounding up the seven into a brushy clearing, returning to the yard calling and listening. The seven disappeared into the bushes, in her absence. At one point Cat did emerge into view, drawn by the drama, and the hen exploded into motion, hurtling toward Cat, beating her wings, and both were gone around the corner of the house in seconds. Mama returned to the yard (I didn't see Cat again until evening), continuing her calling. The missing baby finally popped out from the trees. The hen strode purposefully into the clearing with the baby close behind, the other seven reappeared out of the bushes, and they all hustled out the yard.

I didn't take any pictures at the time, being pretty agitated myself, so I can't be certain the photo above is this family, but it's likely. We have a small turkey population in this part of the island, and usually see them intermittently from spring through summer, somewhere in the neighborhood. Based on my own observations and my neighbors', this year they've been scarcer, with only two (possibly three) families: two sets of different aged poults for sure. The small groups of males have been around less too. Most years the hens combine their families into a large group; that didn't happen this year.

Fast forward a month. A few houses down the lane I spy a turkey family foraging. The poults are much bigger, partially feathered. But there are only three.

8/28 portrait of fam
More about the wild turkeys below.

I've learned this is typical. As ground-nesters, turkeys lose a lot of their young. Half the nests fail before even hatching, mostly due to predation, in this area, by raccoons, crows, ravens, rats, cats, dogs, and Great Horned owls. In a successful nest, all 10-12 eggs will hatch within a day and the hen will lead the newborn poults away immediately, but they are very vulnerable until they learn to fly. After 2 weeks the poults will roost in a tree and their survival chances improve markedly. Even so, studies have measured typical survival rate at 20-30%. Besides predation, challenges include inclement weather, insufficient food or water, and getting run over by cars.

This mama has three who survived. They look sturdy and vigorous, foraging, grooming and industriously wingersizing, feathers now replacing the down. They know I'm watching them, and keep their distance, but I can get close enough to see their plumage. Aren't her feathers lovely, those colors and patterns!

8/28 groom1
8/28 wing flapping
You might be wondering why there are wild turkeys in my neighborhood, here on an island in western Washington, far from their native range. That's a fair question.

Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are native to North America, with 5 different subspecies distributed mostly east of the Rockies. They were domesticated by pre-Aztec peoples in Mexico almost 3000 years ago, it's thought first for their feathers, and then later for meat. Conquistadores brought some of these turkeys back to the Old World in the 1500s, where various breeds were developed over the next several centuries. When Europeans settled along the Eastern seaboard in the 1700s they brought these turkeys with them, and all our present-day domesticated turkeys are descended from these. But the native wild turkeys were hunted nearly to extinction across their ranges, and along with the loss of their habitat to development, there were very few left by the early 1900s.

Wildlife management was very primitive at the time, and early attempts to repopulate turkeys were a failure. For twenty years turkeys were raised in pens and released; almost invariably they were lost to predators because these animals didn't know how to be turkeys. Wild turkeys teach their young from day 1 how to escape predators, how to forage and find water, how to roost, good nesting sites, the social structure of a turkey flock, and turkey language. I didn't realize that the hen in my yard had directed her young poults to hide in the bushes - and they obeyed her absolutely. When she called to them, they reappeared in response. There was no chaos in that scene, at least amongst the turkeys.

In the 1950s, trapping technology was developed so large numbers of wild turkeys could be captured and released in suitable empty habitat. The turkeys have done the rest, and their numbers have soared across the country.

Over the last 40 years or so several island families have brought in various game birds. Usually they die out after a few years, but currently California quail are abundant on San Juan Island and a few Ring-neck Pheasants survive on Lopez. My neighborhood turkeys are of the Rio Grande subspecies, native to the Central Plains, brought here about 20 years ago, and their population is fairly stable, so far.

A few days ago I saw this family again, foraging in an empty lot. Poults primarily eat insects, high protein for body growth, and gradually shift into plant material as they mature. There were still three! Bigger and fully feathered.

9/28 mom, baby
9/28 foraging
When I first started watching these turkeys I didn't know if they were escaped domesticated birds or wild ones. If the plumage and behavior - and survival - hadn't settled that, their flying did. Domesticated turkeys can't fly - Correction: Some can! The heirloom breeds - The hen led her youngsters into the woods, flying onto a downed log and beyond. The juveniles flew up after her easily.
9/28 flying
That's the story of the turkey family so far. A quiet and undramatic story, except to them, 3 baby turkeys who have survived their first summer. I'll keep watching, maybe get lucky and cross paths again this fall. After they rejoin the flock, I'll have no idea who they are.


What's up in your neighborhood? All your autumn observations are welcome.

And -

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Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Oct 03, 2013 at 06:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Birds and Birdwatching and Community Spotlight.

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