So today we turn to a bird that, while not native to the UK, is indelibly linked with the time of year and currently prominent throughout the country. You may well have one nearby as you read this. Yes, it’s the annually ubiquitous Turkey!
Is this really appropriate? Too late now…
The Turkey shares its name with a country in Southern Europe, and that’s because the Wild Turkey was thought to be related to a Middle Eastern bird frequently imported into Europe. This association was incorrect, but the name is now stuck to it like a rasher of bacon.
We have a tendency to disassociate the animals we eat from wild species, but whether it’s cows, pigs, chickens or turkeys there is always a wild ancestor that we domesticated. In this case, the North American Wild Turkey.
The Turkey is a large bird which is why it’s so attractive for domestication, you get a lot of meat off each individual. In the wild it is a bird of woodland, eating nuts, seeds and berries from the trees. Remarkably, while the domesticated bird has been bred to flightlessness, the wild variety can fly well and with surprising agility and as a result it can forage in the canopy too.
Like our Halloween special, the Wild Turkey doesn’t stop at fruit and nut though. They have been recorded eating insects, and small mammals and reptiles too. It’s a big bird and needs the energy.
Their behaviour is grouse-like, with males competing to control large harems of females throughout the breeding season. They will however cooperate, with an alpha and one or more closely related betas sharing the duties (if not the spoils).
As ground nesting birds they are at risk from all manner of predators, but the chicks (or poults) or up and running within a day of hatching and a single female may lay 14 or 15 eggs through a season.
Despite their success as a domestic bird Wild Turkeys came close to extinction within the last hundred years or so, but the population has now rebounded and millions of birds now roam the forests of the North Eastern US.
As a final observation, there have been misguided attempts to introduce Wild Turkeys to the UK, mainly led by royalty in the 1700s. But these populations were heavily poached and never actually took hold.
Enjoy your turkey, if you have it. If not, enjoy whatever alternative you choose. Enjoy the holiday, make sure you get outside and see some wildlife, and I will be back with the first MBOW of 2017 next week.