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by Margaret Hartley


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A rafter of turkeys

It’s turkey season in our neck of the woods, and I don’t just mean for hunters.

There are wild turkeys everywhere — in the woods, along the roads, in the cemetery, in the logging headers — great families of them, some in groups of 30, 40 or more.

I think almost every fall I comment that there are more turkeys than usual. I know I called last year a bumper crop of the gobblers. But this year, I mean it. I’ve never seen so many turkeys. Really.

Down the road from us is a huge flock. (Officially a group of turkeys is called a rafter, or so I’ve read, although I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about a rafter of turkeys).

I think there are four or five grown-up females and something like 25 young ones. They wander from the church yard to the new clearing, into the woods and back out again to cruise the roadside. They cross back and forth, not caring a thing about cars or logging trucks, and I stop to let them pass as I’m driving to work or taking my son to school. We like to greet them and estimate their numbers.

A half-mile farther down the road is a another flock, just as big. In a cow pasture on my way to work there are five or six toms hanging out together.

This time of year, turkeys segregate into groups by sex, with the young’uns hanging with their moms and aunties, and the guys off by themselves. They all roost in trees at night and spend most of their days eating, scratching and pecking the ground in search of bugs and worms to round out their diet of acorns, nuts and other mast.

Good mast years — that means lots of nuts and seeds — mean good turkey years. So this must be a fantastic mast year. Certainly the oaks are heavy with acorns. I’ll have to check the road up behind us to see if it’s been a good year for beech nuts and hickories. I suspect it is.

Turkeys also eat fruit, and this year the wild blueberry crop was so heavy there are lots of dried berries on the bushes on mountaintops and in meadows. The berries, along with all the apple drops, will provide a lot of good winter eating for turkeys, grouse, deer and bear.

The booming in the woods could be people hunting turkeys — the season opened Tuesday. In our woods, the limit is one for the season, so the winter flock should remain pretty heavy. Right now it’s also rabbit season, coyote season, grouse season, squirrel and fox season, so that gun noise could mean anything, even target practice for the coming deer season.

One recent boom was so loud we had to find out what it meant. Turns out a neighbor behind us has a cannon, used for re-enactments but sometimes fired for fun too. “We just pack it with newspaper and black powder,” our neighbor told us. “We don’t actually fire anything.”

The sound would have been enough to startle any nearby turkeys, which have very good hearing, according to a trail website maintained by Pennsylvania State University. The site also says turkeys can run 12 to 25 miles per hour and can fly, in short stretches, up to 55 mph.

If you’ve ever frightened some into flying into a tree, it’s a pretty funny sight. It’s not all that different from watching a chicken fly, if the chicken weighed 10 or 15 pounds. Maybe it’s more like a holiday ham, with wings.

Wild turkeys can reach weights of nearly 20 pounds, which is nothing for a domesticated turkey, bred to gain weight. In this turkey time of year you can see those domestics, waiting for Thanksgiving, penned in yards or cut-down corn fields, getting bigger by the day.

Most of our wild turkeys don’t have to worry about Thanksgiving. And for the most part, their predators are most dangerous when the turkeys are still eggs, hatchlings or poults. By the time they reach adulthood, the hawks and foxes have a harder time grabbing them.

That means their toughest predator is winter, which can prevent them from moving around the woods well enough to keep eating those dried berries and acorns. They stick to swampier areas and thicker woods, or dense hedgerows around open fields, where snow cover is lighter.

Until the snow flies, they’ll be there, along the roads, eating everything they can.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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