I DO NOT RECALL EVER SEEING WILD TURKEYS in Michigan when I was a youngster. They are certainly a sight to behold. I find them a bit odd.
Recently, I waited for a flock of them to pass in front of my car on our main highway going into town. It was late afternoon and I was heading into the harbor of Frankfort to enjoy a couple beers during mid-week’s “Happy Hour.” As I came upon the birds I slowed my vehicle. They were gathering at the side of the road and their leader, very aware of my presence, quickly stretched his head skyward and darted in front of my car. This caused me to come to an abrupt stop. This behavioral sequence has become predictable, yet I chuckled, still surprised at both our actions.
The flock of clucking turkeys followed their leader. They scurried across the highway moving from the snow covered clearing down into the woods across the road. I quickly counted them, there were close to fifty.
I later learned that wild turkeys were overhunted in Michigan in the 1930s and 1940s, and along with their loss of habitat, these conditions nearly drove the large birds into extinction. Conservation efforts turned this around and after decades it is now estimated that 300,000 birds are harvested annually.
I’m not much of a hunter, but I guess this is good news. The agency’s press release used the words harvested numbers, perhaps a different description than I would have chosen expressing the turkeys’ recovery. I simply know that I now see them all the time and thankfully they are flourishing again.
These were young birds. The males, referred to as Jakes, were scattered amongst the numerous hens judging by their various sizes and differing markings. In March, they pair-up to mate from these mixed winter flocks. This is when male dominance is evidenced, and the top males breed with as many females as they can. I wonder how similar our DNA is to turkeys?
The males courting dance begins with a fanning of his tail feathers and vibrant colors appear on their heads and necks - a sure sign of arousal. It is quite a sight and makes me smile when I see it. It is also of interest to the females, though I’m not sure why?
The only preparation the hens make for their soon to arrive eggs are modest ground nests fashioned from last year’s fallen and dried leaves. Though it is still too early for mating season, I am on the lookout for the first signs of these strutting males.
I was glad I had stopped the car. The turkeys were not overly stressed and could remain together in their flock. I wondered in my youth if I would have even slowed the car, likely imagining the turkeys were part of some outdoor penny arcade. Thump, thump. That’s a frightful thought for me today.
To observe such a spectacle of nature clearly adds to my happiness. The birds all survived our highway encounter. I admit that I’m older and wiser and know that I have become a reverent observer, and clearly a more careful driver.