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   Chapter 6 SOCIAL RELATIONS—NESTING—THE YOUNG BIRDS

The Philosophy of Despair By David Starr Jordan Characters: 8355

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The wild turkey differs in its domestic relations from the majority of birds, for it does not take one partner or companion, or pair off in the spring, as do most gallinaceous birds. Charles Hallock has stated that turkeys pair off in the spring. I beg to differ with Mr. Hallock. The male turkey does not confine himself to one mate.

He is a veritable Mormon or Turk, polygamous in the extreme, and desires above all a well-filled harem. He cares not a bit for the rearing or training of his family; in fact, it has been alleged that he follows his mates to their nests and destroys and eats the eggs. This I do not believe, nor will I accuse him of such conduct. He is a vain bird and craves admiration, and acts as if he were a royal prince and a genuine dude, and he will have admiration though it costs him his life. He is a gay Lothario and will covet and steal his neighbors' wives and daughters; and if his neighbors protest, will fight to the finish. He is artful, cunning, and sly, at the same time a stupendous fool. One day no art can persuade him to approach you, no matter how persuasively or persistently you call; the next day he will walk boldly up to the gun at the first call and be shot. He has no sentiment beyond a dudish and pompous admiration for himself, and he covets every hen he sees. He will stand for hours in a small sunny place, striving to attract the attention of the hens by strutting, gobbling, blowing, and whining, until he nearly starves to death. I believe he would almost rather be dead than to have a cloudy day, when he is deprived of seeing the sun shining on his glossy plumage; and if it rains, he is the most disconsolate creature on the face of the earth.

Nest located in thick brush on top of a ridge in Louisiana

The methods employed by the wild turkey hen in nesting and rearing a family do not differ materially from those of the tame turkey. The nest itself is a simple affair, fashioned as if made in a hurry, and consists of a depression scratched in the earth to fit her body comfortably, then a few dry leaves are scratched in to line the excavation. Again, the nest may be under an old fallen treetop or tussock of tall grass, or beside an old log, against which sundry brush, leaves, and grass have drifted, or in an open stubble field or prairie. There is one precaution the hen never neglects, however slovenly the nest is built; this is to completely cover her eggs with leaves or grass on leaving the nest. This is done to protect them from predaceous beasts and birds, particularly from that ubiquitous thief and villain, the crow.

The eggs, usually from eight to fifteen in number, are quite pointed at one end, a little smaller than the eggs of the domesticated turkey, showing considerable variation in size and shape. In color they are uniform cream, sometimes yellowish, and, when quite fresh, with a decided pink cast, spotted and blotched all over with reddish brown and sometimes lilac.

The period of incubation is four weeks. On its first appearance the young wild turkey is covered with a suit of light gray fluffy down, dotted with dusky spots, and with two dusky stripes from the top of the head, down the sides of the back to the rump; but this is soon replaced by a covering of deciduous feathers, and this in turn by the permanent suit at molting in August and September. The first crop of feathers which takes the place of the down grow very rapidly, assuming in their maturity the precise shape and color of the subsequent and permanent growth, and at three months the turkey is in appearance the same as one of nine months. The young bird of two or three pounds weight has the same outline of form as the yearling, but the little fellow in down bears a striking resemblance to a young ostrich. The deciduous feathers mature quickly, and the quill-ends dry before the young bird is a quarter grown; hence the feathers grow no more. But the bird grows until molting-time arrives, when the young fowl, if a gobbler, will weigh from seven to nine pounds. The molting season comes on apace, and the bird is out of humor; for its clothes, as it were, do not fit, the mosquitoes and ticks

bite it, and the deciduous quills of the wings begin to get loose and drop out, one at a time at long intervals, so that some feathers are growing while others are falling. This is also true of the body covering. The tail becomes snaggled and awry, and at the time the young turkey presents anything but a pleasing appearance. The molting begins in August, and it is the last of December before the full second suit of feathers is completed. It is the irregular growth of the feathers that often deceives the hunter as to the age of the fowl. Once a friend of mine and I, after a morning's hunt, stopped to rest and got into our boat. He had three fine turkeys, the time being early in November, and he remarked that he wished he had killed at least one gobbler to put with his hens. On examination I showed him that two of his three were young gobblers and the third an old hen, although the birds were about the same size and the plumage almost identical.

The tuft or beard does not appear on the young gobbler even in the Southern climate until late in October or November, nor have I known them to gobble or strut at this early age, although the tame ones sometimes do. The gobbler's beard grows quite rapidly until the end of the third year, and then slowly until eleven or twelve inches long, when it seems to stop. It may be owing to its wearing off at the lower end by dragging on the ground while feeding; but a close inspection will not substantiate this, for the hairs at the extreme end of the beard are blunt and rounding, and do not indicate wear from friction. The young gobbler's beard is two inches long by the end of November of the first year of his life. By March it is three inches long and stands out of the feathers one inch. At the end of the second year it is five inches long, and at three years about eight inches long.

Hen, wild turkey, and three young. On account of the extreme shyness of the mother, young turkeys are very hard to photograph

Hens have beards only in rare cases, but not in one out of a hundred will a hen be found with one and then never more than four inches long. I have seen gobblers with two or three beards, and one at Eagle Lake, Texas, with five separate, long and distinct beards; but such cases are freaks. I once called up and killed a turkey hen on the banks of the Trinity River, in Texas, which was covered with precisely the same bronze feathers that distinguish the gobbler-the same thick, velvety black satin breast, and the same beautifully decorated neck and head, except the white turban cap of the gobbler. She had a five-inch beard and looked in every way like a gobbler, except being smaller in size. She weighed twelve pounds and had the form of the hen, the legs of a hen, and was a hen, but the most gaudy and beautiful specimen I ever saw. Possibly this was a barren hen, as she had all the visible characteristics of the male, but she did not gobble, she yelped.

The parasite which troubles the turkey is much larger than those which infest chickens. It is yellow in color and crawls rapidly. Turkeys have a habit of rolling themselves in dust and ashes to remove vermin from the skin and feathers; but I believe a bath of dry wood ashes, where an old log or stump has been burned, is preferred by them on account of the cleansing effect of the ashes.

When the young turkeys are four or five months old they are fairly independent of their mother, and become quite self-reliant, so far as roosting, feeding, and flying into trees is concerned. They are not, however, entirely independent of their mother's care until fully grown, but usually the entire brood remains under her guidance more or less until December or January. At this time the young males begin to follow the ways of the old gobbler, separating from the females and going in bands by themselves; therefore there are at this time three classes of turkeys socially (if I may use the term) in the same district. These flocks will incidentally meet, and will feed and scratch together for an hour or so; they then separate into their respective classes and disappear in different directions with great system and little ado.

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