by Naomi K. Shapiro
With wild turkeys becoming prolific (populations are growing rapidly, even in areas that never were a major base for the birds), wherever one drives, it's more usual than not to see turkeys right off the roadway, in fields or on roadsides – at times in flocks numbering 50 or more birds. So, you see these turkeys, and you think it's going to be simple to get one during hunting season. You're wrong.
Turkeys admittedly have small brains, and many "know-it-alls" who have never hunted them consider them "dumb." But when it comes to hunting, they are far from dumb -- indeed, they are among the most difficult quarry to target and kill. They are extremely wary. And yes -- they have a "sixth sense" and know when they're being pressured or hunted. How many times have you seen perfectly-camouflaged, immobile hunters in a blind spot a group of turkeys who had been coming in lickety-split, suddenly stop and sort of "sniff the air." Nothing is out of place. There's been no movement or noise, and yet these birds "sense" that all is not right. It happens all the time, and there's no real explanation for it. The turkeys just know something is amiss. It's called "nature."
Domestic turkeys are normally "white" in color. Most people believe all turkeys are white. Not so for wild turkeys. There may be a rare albino bird here-and-there, but for the most part, wild turkeys are black, with Toms having vivid fan coloration, brightly-colored heads, and feather tips throughout their body. The black coloration gives turkeys the ability to blend into their forest habitat, making them difficult to spot --particularly at night.
Many people believe because of the shape of their heads, wild turkeys don’t see well. Suffice it to say that turkeys have among the keenest and pinpoint-eyesight among birds of any species. The slightest movement will be spotted. The most insignificant "change" in their "normal" environment, color or fauna grouping will be noticed. Turkeys also have specialized "language" -- sounds that mean different things -- from alerts, to calling the opposite sex, anger, and comfort. Studies have shown the intricacy of turkey calls -- purrs, clucks, "screams," and gobbles. They all mean something, and the savvy hunter, while not able to maybe specifically "translate" these calls, will be able to recognize the general "meaning" of many of them. Turkey sounds are not made just to "make themselves heard."
One big myth is that wild turkey is tough and gamey. It's almost laughable to listen to people at Thanksgiving, decry hunting, and how they "can't stand" wild game, while unknowingly gobbling up (excuse the pun) and raving about the wild turkey that is unknowingly set before them. Wild turkey generally has no gamey taste. It has a rich and full flavor, but that is because it's free range, so-to-speak, and is not force-fed-processed feed that contains all types of chemicals and growth-enhancement drugs. And don't you love it when you see the wrapping on a domestic bird say that "flavor is enhanced" by the injection of up to 10% (sometimes more!) of a chemically-concocted fluid. What you get in a wild turkey is nature at its best. Wild turkey tastes like what it eats -- which ranges from domestic crops such as corn and beans -- to almost every type of wild seed. The result? Delicious eating. Wild turkey -- even breast meat -- does taste more toward domestic turkey "dark meat," but that's not a bad thing at all. The taste is mild, yet extremely flavorful and moist. As for tenderness, like any other bird or animal, domestic or wild, it depends on age, and food type and availability. Most have found domestic turkey that is as tough as shoe leather. Same goes for wild turkey if it's an "ancient Tom", although more often than not, wild turkey is wonderfully tender and not at all "chewy."
Some say that turkeys don't really sleep. We have no idea where that came from. Turkeys roost each and every night, usually in tall trees to stay away from predators, and give them a high point to look over the entire area from. These birds do sleep, albeit at times fitfully, and there is always some type of appointed "sentinel" that keeps its "ears" open, and will sound a full alert to the others in the flock if something is awry (presence of a predator like an owl, or the sound of a broken branch; stuff like that).
It's no myth that turkeys can be very aggressive and will straight-out attack anything if they feel threatened, or if they believe their territory is being impinged upon (Toms are very territorial). That includes human beings. And, believe me, their beaks, talons and spurs can wreak havoc on a person. They're not birds that you want to take your kids up to and have them pet.
All in all, "urban legends" have grown up about wild turkeys, more from lack of knowledge than fact. Whatever one hears about wild turkeys, they must be doing SOMETHING right! Their populations are exploding almost exponentially, much to the chagrin of farmers and many who live in populated areas, but the smiles you see on so many faces are those of hunters licking their chops and waiting for the next wild turkey season to begin.
(Phil Schweik of Hooksetters Guide Services contributed to this article).