Oh so pretty and witty and bright
By Sara Swenson
Did you know that Fridley’s own Springbrook Nature Center was one of the first eight places in Minnesota to be named an Important Birding Area by the National Audubon Society? With its protected forest, prairie, and wetland habitats and its long-running public bird-banding research program, it’s no wonder Springbrook is a popular destination for fans of our feathered friends. But you don’t need to be an experienced birder to spot some of the birds who call Springbrook home. You definitely won’t need your binoculars, or to even look up in the trees, if you’re searching for one fellow in particular. These birds spend most of their time on the ground, have about a four-foot wingspan, and can weigh up to 25 pounds. I’m speaking, of course, of wild turkeys.
Turkeys (scientific name Meleagris gallopavo) are understandably captivating to children and the perhaps more city-wise visitors to Springbrook and other Metro nature centers. But I’ve found that pretty much all naturalists (including myself), professionally learned in the wide world of nature as we are, still get a kick out of watching wild turkeys do their thing. There’s something about their dinosaur-like appearance, their distinct walk as they forage through the woods (or around the bird feeders) that just tends to put a smile on people’s faces.
Turkey-watching is a treat all year round, but this time of year the male turkeys (called toms) are especially amusing. That’s because April to May is breeding season for our large, bald bird friends – but before the baby turkeys (poults) can be born, of course, the toms need to find themselves a lady hen.
You’ll generally know a turkey is a tom if he has a “beard,” a tuft of feathers that resemble hairs growing from his breast (although some hens might have short, wispy beards, too). Toms also have sharp spurs on each of their legs, red wattles on their throat, growths on their heads called caruncles, and a fleshy object that hangs from their forehead and over their beak called a snood.
Can you say “Ooh la la”?
During mating season, tom turkeys will “display” for hens, a word that scientists use to describe the efforts to which animals will go to make themselves attractive to members of the opposite sex. In the case of male wild turkeys, courtship displays include puffing up their feathers and spreading their tails out like a fan to make themselves look pretty. Their heads and necks may change colors with their courtship mood, too, and they also drum, spit, and use that unmistakable gobbling call to try and reel in a mate. I ran into a posse of toms (well, a group of turkeys is actually called a “rafter” or “gang”) out on the prowl on the Oak Savanna Trail at Springbrook Nature Center last week, each of them in full courtship display – though none of them actually females. We’ll have to see in the coming weeks if they had any success, and whether any new poults are born.
In any case, it was really fun to see Springbrook’s toms putting their rainbow feathers to good use. True, they may not be quite like a technicolor Thanksgiving cartoon, but there’s definitely more to them than their tails-down, all-business look of the summer and winter. In the springtime, we get to see them strut their stuff and show off their true colors. Come by some time to catch the show.
Sara Swenson is an interpretive naturalist at Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Ave. NW in Fridley. Director Mike Maher welcomes comments at [email protected] or 763-572-3589. Go to springbrooknaturecenter.org for more information.