Early on a Monday morning (22 August 2011) after treating the wall of a residence in Temple, Texas, for carpenter ants, I started my truck and prepared to back out of the driveway when the home’s owner, Jan Niskala — who was standing in her front yard — motioned for me to stop and come over. Nearby was her neighbor, Eric, who, like Jan, was peering at something on the back of his home.
Curious, I got out and walked to where Jan stood, noting her signal to keep as quiet as possible. There my gaze followed her gesturing hand to Eric’s roof. At the far edge stood a wild turkey, its wings folded and its fan-shaped tail feathers tucked away, as is their normal habit.
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Wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated white-feathered variants (same DNA as their wild brethren, but selected over many generations for a reduced flight capability, a calmer demeanor, and a lower intelligence, so that they can be raised together in pens) are cunning animals. Though relatively rare, they are no longer considered threatened.
Much of the credit for the increased populations of wild turkeys in the United States goes to a number of coordinated programs, among them the North American Wild Turkey Management Plan (NAWTMP).
This plan, which addresses wild turkeys on international, national, regional and local levels, is designed to “allow management objectives to adjust to the changing demands of wildlife conservation, while supporting the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, habitat joint ventures and bird conservation regions. The structure of NABCI provides a North American perspective on wild turkey habitat requirements across political boundaries. This approach is an intuitive tool to plan and integrate wild turkey habitat management and restoration efforts with other important regional conservation needs.”
The wild turkey, which is native to North and Central America, received its common name from Europeans who, on first observing it in the wild during early explorations of North America, confused it with a European guineafowl in the Numididae family. That latter bird is native to Africa but was made famous by Turkish breeders and merchants who marketed live guineafowls to Central Eiurope. As a result that bird was commonly referred to as a turkey.
The North American wild turkey, however, appears to be only distantly related to guineafowl, at best. The taxonomy on these birds is in flux today, as are the taxonomies of most animals. Not long ago, it was proposed that turkeys should be grouped in their own family — the Meleagrididae — but recent genomic analysis of a retrotranposon marker suggests strongly that assigning these birds to the Phasianidae family, as most authorities presently do, is appropriate. To some of these authorities, the guineafowl should be grouped under another family (the Numididae), while to others — including the American Ornithologist’s Union — they are both properly considered to be phasianids.
This particular turkey is a male, based on the fact that its head and upper neck are markedly bereft of feathers, baring on that portion of the body a fleshy skin that changes coloration depending on the bird’s mood and level of excitement.
When threatened, the male’s head and neck turn a bluish white, and when angry and ready to fight the color becomes bright red as it becomes so flushed with blood that the swollen tissue bulges around the eyes, sometimes to the point the latter can hardly be seen. In photos of the bird on the roof the whiteness of the head and neck suggests that this fellow feared those who were watching his every move. In general, that is a rational response to the presence of humans.
Later, Jan learned, when we and Eric had left, a neighbor across the street observed the bird as it flew off the roof and landed in Jan’s front yard. There it spent several minutes pecking around, probably eating some of the acorns (one of the typical turkey’s favorite snacks) on the ground under Jan’s live oak trees. At one point it spent some time at her front door, most likely admiring its reflection in the storm door’s glass. Admiring is the right word, if research on the social behavior of this bird is any indication, as males sharing the same mother often pair up to go on mating soirees together. They recognize their brothers by sight, smell, and certain other characters, and use that connection as a basis for — as Rick Blain (Humphrey Bogart) put it in his final remarks to Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) in the closing scene of the 1942 film Casablanca — “…the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Such friendships have their roots in the selective adaptation schemes predicted by the Red Queen Hypothesis. Because they share a significant fraction of their total DNA, by working as a team the dominant bird in the pair is able to help secure mates for his less-dominant partner, thus helping propagate his DNA. This suggests that turkeys, unlike many other birds (e.g., cardinals and blue jays) are more likely to see — in a mirror image of themselves — a rather handsome specimen worth getting to know, instead of — as in the case of the cardinal and the blue jay — a competitor to be run out of one’s territory at all costs.
Taxonomy: In process…
- Bidwell, Terrence G. Management of the Wild Turkey in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service NREM-8700.
- Ellegran, Hans, and Ariane Carmichael. 2001. Multiple and Independent Cessation of Recombination Between Avian Sex Chromosomes. Genetics 158: 325–331.
- Guan, Xiaojing. 2009. The Mitochondrial Genome Sequence and Molecular Phylogeny of the Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. Anim Genet. 2009 April ; 40(2): 134–141.
- Hatch, Scott A. 1983. Mechanism and Ecological Significance of Sperm Storage in the Northern Fulmar with Reference to its Occurrence in Other Birds. The Auk 100:593-600.
- Kan, X-Z., et al. 2010. Phylogeny of major lineages of galliform birds (Aves: Galliformes) based on complete mitochondrial genomes. Genet. Mol. Res. 9 (3): 1625-1633
- Kriegs, Jan Ole, et al. 2007. Waves of genomic hitchhikers shed light on the evolution of gamebirds (Aves: Galliformes). BMC Evolutionary Biology 7:190.
- Shen, Yong-Yi, et al. A mitogenomic perspective on the ancient, rapid radiation in the Galliformes with an emphasis on the Phasianidae. BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:132.
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