Like Americans, wild turkey often courageous

After ruminating a bit about what to write in this month’s column, I kept returning to the wild turkey.

Yes, it seems a bit of a cliché, being the month of Thanksgiving and all. But the fact that this is also the week of the presidential election seemed to make it a necessity. After all, most people know the story of Benjamin Franklin’s push to make the turkey our nation’s symbol, rather than the bald eagle.

The ongoing rite established by our forefathers, such as Franklin, to vote every four years on who should lead our nation, makes me think about the turkey and its traits as a species, as well as how those traits might have served to better symbolize the nation that was developing during the 18th century.

The turkey, as Franklin pointed out in a letter to his daughter in 1784, is a true native of America. He goes on to say that, “though a little vain and silly (it is) a bird of courage.” Maybe there is some truth to Franklin’s comparison of the turkey’s traits to those of Americans, but one thing is for sure: Wild turkeys in Colorado have courageously come back from the brink of disappearance and now are thriving.

During the time of the Pilgrims, turkeys were plentiful in North America. But overharvesting and habitat loss nearly wiped out America’s wild turkey population by the 1900s. It would have demonstrated a little of the “vain and silly” behavior that Franklin spoke of if the bird that represented abundance and a successful harvest was decimated by the very folks who used it to symbolize those characteristics.

Colorado is now home to two subspecies of wild turkey: the native Merriam’s and the Rio Grande, which was introduced to the state in 1980. The Merriam’s wild turkey is primarily found in open meadows and in ponderosa, oak brush and piñon juniper stands in mountainous zones in the west. The Rio Grande species inhabit cottonwood and riparian areas adjacent to agricultural lands in the eastern portion of the state.

The Durango Nature Center is home to a family of Merriam’s wild turkeys and many students through the years have seen a hen and her brood bobbing down the widest trail in the early mornings, trying to escape the 60-plus students who have descended upon their home.

Wild turkeys tend to be cunning, wary birds. They have excellent eyesight and are capable of flying for short distances at speeds up to 50 mph and running up to 25 mph to escape predators. These characteristics have been bred out of the game-farm raised birds and commercial turkeys served at Thanksgiving dinner.

The male’s bare head and neck is red, blue or white depending on the season! (Yet another reason for the turkey to symbolize America – what other creature can morph from red, to white to blue?)

The wild turkey’s call is a gobble. Hence the phrase, “gobble up your food,” is an apt term for the feeding frenzy in which most Americans participate over Thanksgiving.

Whether overindulging, or stoically going to the polls, Americans and turkeys both can display courageous and silly behavior. November is a time to celebrate both sides of our nature symbolized in the wild turkey.

sally@durangonaturestudies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.

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