Sunday, July 21, 2024

In April 2019, this turkey in Groton proves it is an agile flier. (Photo: Tom Murray)

The ancient Aztecs and Maya first domesticated the turkey. The Aztecs in Mexico considered the huexolotl, as they called it, so important that they dedicated two religious festivals a year to the birds. It was common for more than 1,000 turkeys per day to be sold in busy Aztec markets year-round.

Spanish colonizers encountered these domesticated fowl in the 1500s. Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor, gave more than a thousand turkeys to Hernán Cortés and his men, who thought they looked like a peacock. They called it el pavo, after pavo real, the Spanish term for peacock.

A male turkey drops his wingtips and spreads his tail feathers to court females. The skin hanging over the beak is the snood. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Moctezuma II raised turkeys in his expansive zoo in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Empire. The zoo had thousands of animals and 300 zookeepers, who fed about 500 turkeys per day to the caged carnivores. Unfortunately, the zoo was destroyed in 1521 after Cortés and his men decided to capture Tenochtitlan. For 75 days, the city’s 250,000 citizens were cut off from the rest of their empire. They fought fiercely, but mass starvation ensued. By the time they surrendered to the Spanish two and a half months later, they had eaten all the animals in the zoo. (Moctezuma had been killed during the initial stages of the conquest.) Cortés razed Tenochtitlan and built his own capital over its ruins, calling the land New Spain.

The Spaniards so liked the taste of the domesticated turkeys they had received that they brought these birds back to Spain with them. Soon, people could buy Mexican turkeys in Spain, Italy and England. In only 100 years, domesticated Mexican turkeys existed throughout Europe – on farms, in barnyards, in markets and on dinner plates. Europeans bred many different varieties of it.

About 15 percent of older female turkeys sport a chest beard, as shown on this hen on Highland Avenue in Somerville in October. (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

The turkey became a common dish at festivals in England in the 1550s. Wealthy people served them in their homes at Christmas. In the 1600s and 1700s, European settlers carried domesticated Mexican turkeys back to Massachusetts and Virginia, where they raised the birds on farms.

Large numbers of wild turkeys also roamed the woods of North America. As European settlers arrived, they encountered these wild birds, which were so ubiquitous that the supply seemed inexhaustible. Early settlers hunted the birds relentlessly. By the mid-1800s, wild turkeys had been wiped out from nearly half their original range.

In 1840 John James Audubon wrote that the turkey “is now very rarely seen.” In 1851, a hunter killed the last wild turkey in Massachusetts. By the early 1900s, where there had once been millions of turkeys, only about 30,000 birds remained. Beginning in the 1930s, people worried that turkeys might become extinct, and restoration efforts began.

A wild turkey perches in a tree in August 2022. (Photo: Tom Murray)

At first, officials released pen-raised turkeys into the wild, but these birds did not have mothers teaching them what to eat and how to find it, or social behaviors such as vocalizations and flocking. (Turkeys cackle as they fly down from roosts, purr while traveling on foot and yelp to reassemble a scattered flock. Young turkeys whistle when they’re lost. Turkeys flock in a circle to stay safe. Each member of the flock holds a rank in the pecking order.) Pen-raised birds were unable to master these survival skills, and they perished when released into the wild.

Only wild turkeys knew how to survive in our forests. So scientists began trapping wild birds and moving them to areas where they weren’t. In 1975, for example, a biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game released 25 wild New York turkeys in Walpole, New Hampshire. He hoped his efforts would lead to a few thousand wild turkeys in the state. Instead, New Hampshire’s turkey population has exploded to about 45,000 birds today! Similar reintroduction efforts in Massachusetts began with the release of 37 wild New York birds in the Berkshires. Today there are 35,000 wild turkeys in Massachusetts. There are 75,000 in Maine and 50,000 in Vermont. Altogether, there are now about 6.5 million wild turkeys in the contiguous United States! That’s a pretty good rebound for a bird that almost went extinct.

Two males turkeys strut through Pepperell in May. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Wild turkeys are much different from the domesticated. They are agile, fast fliers; domestic turkeys are larger and, with so much breast meat, they cannot fly. Wild turkeys have poor night vision, so they roost in trees to stay safe in the dark. Domestic turkeys cannot fly up into trees. Wild turkeys have many vocalizations, but are mindful of predators and make sounds only when needed. Domestic turkeys are unaware of danger and therefore more talkative.

Wild turkeys live in flocks. During the winter, males and females (hens and toms) live in separate flocks. The rest of the year, multiple females may flock with one dominant male and his brothers. In March and April, males begin courting females. They strut, while females approach to survey the scene. Males are polyamorous, mating with as many hens as possible. They change the color of their head and neck from pink to blue, enlarge the flap of skin under and over the beak (the wattle and snood), and turn their forehead white. They fluff their feathers, drag their wing tips to the ground, spread their tail feathers, and make a deep sound, almost too deep for humans to hear. This sound travels a great distance to attract females from far away.

A turkey poult forages in Groton in August 2022. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Studies have shown that females prefer males with longer snoods – they’re healthier and have genes that make them resistant to parasites that can kill chicks. By choosing males with longer snoods, females are trying to raise the healthiest chicks possible.

After mating, female turkeys lay 10 to 18 eggs in a nest on the ground. They incubate the eggs and care for the young. Adult females have feathers that are plainer than males for camouflage while nesting and tending the young. Turkey chicks have feathers when they hatch. They leave the nest within 24 hours to forage for food with their mother. For the first two weeks, the chicks cannot fly, and the mother roosts on the ground with them. The youngsters (poults) stay with their mother for a year.

Turkey eggs hidden in a blackberry bush in Chelmsford in May 2019. (Photo: Tom Murray)

Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) roamed North America 10 million years ago. The subspecies we are most familiar with, the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), descended from these ancient birds. Another subspecies, the Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo), the grandparent of the turkey we eat for Thanksgiving, is also descended from this ancient bird. Although the Aztecs and Maya domesticated the Mexican turkey thousands of years ago, the wild Mexican turkey is today endangered. But other subspecies, including our eastern wild turkey, flourish.

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Seen nearby

Aisha Yousuf spotted this red fox on May 3 in Provincetown.

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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.