Next Thursday, tables across the country will look virtually identical: creamy mashed potatoes, bright yellow corn, warm brown gravy, and a big ole’ oven-baked turkey will be served to family and friends from far and wide. Each year, Americans consume 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving alone, making this seasonal event a big chunk of the revenue for the turkey industry. We eat it every year, but many of us don’t think too much about the iconic bird that sits on our dinner table during this November celebration. As you think back to the fundamental beginnings on which this country was built, take a minute to learn about the charismatic fowl that has become a symbol for one of the most widely-celebrated national holidays.
Meleagris gallopavo, a.k.a. the wild turkey, was domesticated by Native Americans hundreds of years before Europeans ever set foot on the continent. During the Colonial Age, this species was brought back by European voyagers from the Americas, and became one of the most prevalent livestock species in the Western World. Thus, the turkey you find on both your dinner table and roaming around your backyard come from the same ancestral line. Even though they are genetically the same species, the domesticated line has been bred for hundreds of years for greater muscle mass and meat palatability, and, therefore, wild and domesticated turkeys look pretty different. While a wild turkey has a potential to outrun a racehorse, domesticated individuals are a bit, well, less athletic.
In response to overharvesting, the wild turkey was close to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. Efforts made by wildlife game managers helped preserve the animals’ population across North America. Turkeys were reintroduced to several areas, including South Carolina, the Appalachian Mountains, and southern regions of Canada. By allowing the species to recover, the wild turkey has made a noteworthy comeback: current estimates place wild turkey population levels around 7 million.
With this comeback, it’s not surprising that the wild turkey is one of the most prevalent wildlife species captured by Candid Critters camera traps. Over the years, Candid Critters has collected 2,366 observations of wild turkeys across North Carolina. Using this data, we are learning more about turkey behavior and whereabouts across the state.
One thing you may have noticed if you’ve ever seen turkeys on your Candid Critters camera is that these birds are very social creatures. Turkeys like to travel in flocks, which can range anywhere from 5 to 50 individuals. Flock size will depend on several factors, including food availability and time of year. During the spring and summer, hens spend their time incubating their eggs and raising young poults. Starting in the fall, hens and gobblers will join large, sex-specific flocks that they’ll stay with throughout the winter. In early spring, these flocks will intermingle as the males begin courting females for the March and April breeding season.
How do we know all this? Facts about turkey behavior has been supported by scientific data: we know what we know about turkeys, as well as any other animal, because we’ve studied them for long periods of time. From Candid Critters’ camera trapping data, we see that turkeys are seen in groups averaging just over 4 individuals during the wintertime (Figure 1). Contrarily, the observed turkey group size is much smaller in the summer: fewer than 2 individuals are seen on average every time a trail camera is triggered. Based on what we know about turkey behavior, it makes sense that we see more individuals hanging out together in the wintertime, since this is a period when wild turkeys are known to join larger flocks.
So, the more data we collect with our camera traps, the more we’ll be able to learn about the wild turkey and other wildlife across North Carolina. Scientists and land managers can use the data we acquire to properly care for this species so that it remains prevalent across the state. We love seeing turkeys on trail camera photos, and hope that we will continue seeing them for many years to come. Thus, when you’re sitting down for your Thanksgiving meal this year, remember the turkey and its fascinating story, and don’t forget the gravy!