If you can remember seeing wild turkeys in Pennsylvania a generation ago – a time when there were many fewer then than there are today – consider yourself a lucky observer.
Since then, the wild turkey population has rebounded, with more than seven million nationwide, and is now prevalent in every state but Alaska.
"When the first Europeans came to the Americas, wild turkeys numbered in the tens of millions," said Bob Erickson, regional wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. "They are true North Americans, originally found only in the United States, Canada and Mexico – east of the Rocky Mountains.
"Wild turkeys were raised in captivity by the Aztecs in the Mexico City region over 2,000 years ago," Erickson continued. "The Conquistadors brought domestic turkeys back to Spain, and they spread throughout Europe. The pilgrims knew of turkeys, and may have brought turkeys with them."
Erickson, who was in the Lehigh Valley to present Wild Turkeys 101 for the Wildlands Conservancy at the Trexler Environmental Center recently, explained how loss of habitat had decimated the wild turkey population in the United States, leaving only remnant turkey populations in the south central part of the state.
After the Pennsylvania Game Commission was brought into existence in the late 1800s, the domestic wild turkeys were protected and their populations were increased by trapping and transferring wild turkeys from Mexico over a 50-year period from the 1940s to the 1990s.
Wild turkeys are the largest American game bird. They can fly up to a mile at 50 miles per hour, and run at speeds up to 25 mph. Compared to a human, their vision is five times better, and hearing is four times better, although they have a poor sense of smell.
Newborns are poults, females are hens, yearling males are Jakes, and mature males are called Toms or gobblers. An adult Tom averages 20 pounds, with a hen being about half that weight.
There are about a half dozen wild turkey species, with the local species being the Eastern wild turkey. Other species of wild turkeys are found in Florida, Rio Grand, Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Madre highlands of Mexico. The most noticeable difference between these species is the coloration of the tips of their feathers.
The supermarket turkey is far removed from the wild turkey. Domesticated from the Mexican species two millennia ago, the domestic turkey has been bred for a tranquil disposition, to gain weight quickly and selectively, not to fly, and for desired coloration.
Eriksen has been a wildlife biologist for 38 years, working with bobcats, black bear, and a variety of birds including hawks and owls.
"But wild turkeys are number one," he said.
When wild turkeys were rare in the 1960s, Eriksen crossed paths with his first one. He saw its tracks in the snow but never spotted the bird. Turkeys don't mind the cold, but unless there's a crust on the snow, they can't get around very well in deep snow.
"In the winter, they love to hang out near a dairy barn. Cows are poor at digesting grain. The turkeys enjoy a hot meal," Eriksen joked.
While the males are displaying most of the year, the females avoid the males until they ovulate and begin to breed in early March. The hens will lay 10-12 eggs then begin nesting – a vulnerable period.
Typically 30 percent of the hens die from predators. The newly-hatched poults leave the nest in 24 hours and imprint on the hen.
By the end of the first year, typically only three poults survive.