By Patricia Drackett, Director Crosby Arboretum
The Picayune Item
How about a few turkey topics to share around the dinner table this Thanksgiving if the conversation begins to fade?
Visitors to the Crosby Arboretum sometimes inquire about whether we have wild turkeys on the property. While I’ve not spotted them here in my five years, I’ve seen them foraging by the side of a busy four-lane highway and heard many stories of those who have seen them locally. A few weeks ago I was treated to some incredible photos of several huge, picture-perfect turkeys that had boldly overtaken a subdivision. They were happily roosting on suburban roofs and strutting on the lawns.
Did you know that the wild turkey was almost our national bird? When the colonies declared their independence from England, they considered a symbol fitting to be placed on the new national seal. Benjamin Franklin felt that the wild turkey was a perfectly respectable choice for the new emblem. Although others favored the bald eagle, Franklin believed that eagles were lazy and vicious predators unworthy of such recognition, and a bird of “bad moral character”. Obviously, he was outvoted!
Turkeys are the largest North American game bird. Adult male turkeys, called toms or gobblers, can weigh up to 24 pounds. Their brightly colored feathers, in coppers, reds, and greens, come in handy when they are looking to attract females during the breeding season. Female turkeys are called hens and are much drabber in color. This helps provide camouflage when they are on their nests.
Wild turkeys forage for food on the ground, consuming berries, nuts, and seeds, and sometimes even small animals such as frogs or salamanders. According to MSU Extension Service Publication 2033, “Forest Management for Wild Turkeys”, the birds also eat insects such as grasshoppers, millipedes, insect larvae, and worms and snails. Young turkeys eat mostly insects in their first few weeks after hatching, and then begin to pick up fruits and seeds. The Extension publication notes that most turkey nests are located within 10 yards of a forest edge, such as a logging road or a firebreak.
Turkeys consume “soft mast” such as fruit from dogwood, blackberries and dewberries, huckleberries, blackgum, spicebush, muscadine, blackhaw, and wild cherries. They will also eat seeds of longleaf pine, sweetgum, and magnolia. Is this list starting to make you hungry?
The publication states that turkeys will roost in a variety of forest habitats, but most often will roost in conifers located near water. Trees such as bald cypress and spruce pine can offer them attractive habitat in these areas. Spruce pine is displayed at the Arboretum and is also called “turkey pine” because its branches are often full to the ground, offering the birds a perfect spot for an overnight stay.
Educational outreach biologist Crystie Baker from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson once arranged for a “special surprise guest” during her Project Wild teachers’ workshop that took place at the Arboretum. Lance Middleton, Pearl River County field representative from the Mississippi Soil & Water Conservation Commission and his two feathered friends provided am educational opportunity for teachers to learn about the bird and its habits. To help “teach turkey” at the workshop, attendees made use of a National Wild Turkey Federation ”Wild About Turkey” Education Box designed to teach students about the restoration of the wild turkey in the United States, a conservation success story, as well as the importance of wise management of wildlife resources.
The education box is chock-full of activities and educational tools correlated to national education standards for kindergarten through 12th grade students. More information about the kit, and how to obtain one, is available on the NWTF website (www.nwtf.org). Links to the Mississippi chapters are also found here.
The National Wild Turkey Federation is a national nonprofit organization established in 1973. Along with its members the organization has helped to restore land that supports North American turkey populations, spending more than $400 million to conserve nearly 17 million acres of habitat (an area larger than the state of West Virginia). In addition to wild turkeys, hundreds of species of upland wildlife, such as quail, deer, and songbirds, have benefited from this improved habitat.
The NWTF website includes links for sources of tree seedlings that are “ice cream” to turkeys, including Chickasaw plum, common persimmon, and southern crabapple, and oaks such as nuttall, cherrybark, shumard, water, white, and swamp chestnut oak. Acorns provide “hard mast” – the dried fruit of woody plants that fall to the forest floor, such as acorns and nuts from tree species such as hickory, pecan, walnut, and beech.
Turkeys also consume fruit from hawthorn trees. In our area, two well-known species of hawthorn are parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) and mayhaw (Crataegus opaca). Many of you will recognize mayhaw because of the tasty jelly made from the fruit. Turkeys may have to get up pretty early to beat dedicated jelly-makers to these trees. Both of these hawthorn species will make beautiful accent trees in your home landscape because of the attractive white flowers in spring. But take care when locating them in your yard as they are thorny, however, the fruit crop may cause you to quickly forgive this characteristic. Visit the Arboretum for more information on native plants, or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. See our current program schedule on our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu. Social media links are listed on our homepage. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).
For further exploration:
Read more about the story of the NWTF on their website (www.nwtf.org). Search the web for more information on Mississippi’s native plants that will attract wildlife, including MSU Extension Publication 2402, “Establishing a Backyard Wildlife Habitat”, available at www.MSUcares.com.