Friday, April 8, 2011

Turkey Talk

I am having difficulty keeping up with my posting! My notes are from March 28:

Wildlife Safari (that is the nonprofit drive-through animal park where we volunteer. Our main job is to take photos of their giraffes, rhinos, hippo, zebras, etc. . In the process we often photograph native species that use the many acres available to them). Life started out quietly. “Most of the waterfowl have headed north. Turkeys busy strutting…..”

A strutting turkey is an awesome sight! Watching all those feathers suddenly fluff out and stand on end is a little like an umbrella opening, only this umbrella has iridescent colors from every hue in the rainbow. A tom struts with such pride and careful deliberation. His fan (his tail) spreads into a very flat half circle, but he does far more with it than just walk around in front of it. Think of all those feathers coming from what my mother called “the Pope’s nose.” Now where did that expression come from? In any case, the Pope’s nose is about the size of a 50 cent piece on a turkey … and all those turkey tail feathers grow from it. He rotates his fan rather like turning the steering wheel on a car, sometimes cocking the right side high and sometimes the left. But that isn’t enough. He can also tilt it so that he can stand at a three quarters angle in front of a hen, and yet have his tail directly towards her. Hens are what this is all about.

When the tom’s fan is spread, he also fluffs every other feather on his body. He looks solid, but if I could fill all the space with water instead of air, I’m sure he’d weigh four times more. When the sun shines the body feathers are a glory of iridescent colors.

Mr. Tom has another trick up his sleeve. Turkey heads are naked with a warty lump on top of their bill called a snood. When the tom struts the snoods stretches into a long loose dangle, longer than his bill, and the bare skin at the base of his throat skin fills with blood, forming three big wattles. Even more surprising the whole works can be a pasty white, or a striking combination of pale forehead, bright blue on his cheeks and fire engine red wattles, or even all red. What more could a lady ask for?

Dale and I are parked, watching a flock of half a dozen toms in full strut, trying to impress about a dozen hens. We are only a few feet from the birds. The tom goes through a series of little dances. He spreads his fan just a tad more and briefly drags his primaries (wing tips) on the ground. It makes quite a rustle if he happens to be on coarse soil. There is a soft ‘sneezey’ sound followed by a muffled rumble that is so soft I almost think I am imagining it. The sounds are difficult to hear, but we are close enough. Most of the toms are on Dale side and I am trying to draw these guys.

The hens are indifferent, busy preening and pecking about looking for food. It dawns on me that I’m hearing a lot of the ‘yelp’ call and one hen is sitting on the ground with her head high. I’ve never seen it before, but I realize what is happening. Dale hands me the camera and rescues my pen and journal which are about to slide off my lap. The Tom approaches the hen from behind and carefully stands on her back. He starts to knead her back! And seems to be tickling her head with his long ‘beard.’

This is taking way longer than I ever expected. The camera tells the story. Five minutes of kneading before they finally got down to business.

The actual copulation didn’t take long at all. She finally stretched her head out and tails twisted to meet each other. Afterwards she stood up and ruffled every feather before strolling off. He stayed fully fluffed but the colors on his head faded to pasty white for a few minutes … then started to color up again.

Wow! We watched turkeys strut 19 days one spring and many other days since then, but have never seen a copulation. I suspect it usually takes place at first daylight and we just got lucky today. After we got home I looked up turkey behavior on Cornell University’s web site, Birds of North America Online. Biologists have figured out the tom can’t see the hen when he is on top of her, and that beard helps him figure out just where she is. She cooperates by holding her head high until it is time for the copulation.


  1. You do see the most amazing things! Love the colorful top image as well as the sketches. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was an education for me even though we see lots of turkeys strolling through our yard. I didn't know all these little details. Wonderful sketch of the first turkey and love the composition.

  3. Wow.. These are wonderful drawings, paintings AND photos. What a great shot of them mating. I posted some Turkey photos on my blog I saw recently, but now I will enjoy them even more because of your post today. I love how you educate us as well as entertain us with your lovely Art. Great post as always. I have been thru that Wild Animal park and its really a fantastic place to visit and to get some great photos. I loved the Giraffes walking around.

  4. Turkeys are always fascinating this time of year. Something new to watch for now...the changing of the colors. Wow! Thanks Elva and Dale!

  5. I have never seen turkeys mate. I have seen them strutting around in a group asking for friendship. Ha.. Great sketches too.

  6. Wow... this was interesting! We have wild turkeys around where we live and we've observed the wonderful show the male puts on. Now I understand a little more of what's going on. Thank you!