Upstaged!

I spied a tom turkey showing off for a couple of hens about 10 feet from the house in the backyard the other day; in fact, he was so close I couldn’t really get a good shot of him.

wild turkey displays-

All puffed out, but not gobbling, Mr. Tom tries to get the attention of the two hens under the bird feeders.  

So I went out the front door and crept around to the back yard for a better shot of him, but then I happened to glance over to the neighbor’s yard, and saw there was competition from a much bigger Tom.

wild turkey displays-

Mr. Tom #2 was performing with much greater enthusiasm, and had far better looking feathers.

Whoa,  Mr. Tom #1 was totally outclassed, upstaged, eclipsed, whatever you want to call it.  Mr. Tom #2 was a stud!  And four more hens were over there with him admiring the show as he strutted around.

wild turkey displays

Mr. Tom #1 is not really ready for prime-time. Those tail feathers have become very bedraggled looking.  Could he have lost or broken them in a tussle with Mr. Tom #2?  Do male turkeys tussle?

wild turkey displays

Mr. Tom #2 struts his stuff, turning slightly to show off his fan-tail to each hen as she wandered over next to him. The morning light was too dim to catch the gorgeous iridescence in his feathers.

wild turkey displays

“Come on over, ladies, and check me out…”

Soon, the hens from my yard joined the rest of the group, and even Tom #1 bowed in respect to “the dude” and moved on into the forest to join the rest of the tribe.  He was really no competition, with his beat-up feathers, incompletely fanned out tail, and missing beard.  Better luck next year, Mr. Tom.

wild turkey displays

Giving up his attempt to show off, Mr. Tom #1 lowers his back and tail feathers and slinks off into the woods.

turkey tracking

On a walk on a dreary, rainy day at Tamarack nature center the other day, armed with only a cell phone camera (because who takes photos in the rain, right?), I came upon two flocks of turkeys.  Strangely enough, they were segregated by sex and separated by great distance, which I would never have expected at this time of year.  There were hens only in one flock of 14 birds on the south end of the nature center’s acreage, and toms only in the other flock of 7 birds on the extreme northern side, probably more than a mile away.  Hmmm.. shouldn’t they be feeling amorous at this time of year?

hen turkeys-tamarack nature center

I came across this group while they were resting under some conifers. They immediately got up, paraded out in quick order, and disappeared into the forest undergrowth.

tom turkeys-tamarack nature center

Some rather beefy looking Tom Turkeys were foraging under the pines, but never let me get within 100 feet, and always kept a good number of tree branches between them and me.

tom turkeys-tamarack nature center

Turkeys can move rather silently and quickly through the vegetation, and if I hadn’t spotted a glimmer of something dark moving, I would have missed this group altogether. It doesn’t look like it, but it was quite dark under these pines on a dreary day.

I suspect if I had taken the camera with the big heavy telephoto I wouldn’t have seen any of this.  Sometimes, it’s just as nice to have a good visual memory (instead of a digital one) of a unique experience (at least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself of).

Happy Earth Day

In celebration of Earth Day, I embraced the cold air and warm sunshine, and tried to commune with nature by taking a long walk in the woods.  I saw Brown Creepers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Black-capped Chickadees, none of which I photographed because I have lost my quick trigger finger for fast-moving birds.  So I took photos of these slower-moving turkeys instead.

pair of tom turkeys

the bachelors, happy to hang out together while looking for good things to eat — and perhaps a female or two…

pair of tom turkeys

Unlike most wild turkeys that run from me when I see them in my backyard, these big Toms nonchalantly strolled through the woods foraging.

wild turkey male-

And they were happy to pose and to gobble every now and then.  They really are very beautiful birds in the sunlight — if you just ignore the teeny weeny bare head and those red lumps of flesh dangling from the neck.

wild turkey male displaying-

Same male as above — he’s just making sure I noticed him.

wild turkey male

They are more uncomfortable out in the open in the grassland, and both made a beeline for the woods on the other side of this field.

No wonder Benjamin Franklin wanted to make them our national bird.

Turkey stroll

I haven’t seen much of the wild turkeys this year — it must not be a good year for acorns in my backyard.  But two young males checked out the weed patch in my neighbor’s yard the other day, and found it far more interesting than my wildflower garden.

turkey toms

Perhaps they are finding some good insects among the tall weeds. I dislike the way the weeds come through the fence between our yards, but am happy the weed patch brings in the wildlife.

turkey tom-old

The elder Tom (long beard hanging down his front) of the pair shows no interest in the bugs in the wildflower garden — perhaps he is not fond of bees.

turkey tom-young

The younger Tom (short beard) shows equal disdain for a different patch of wildflowers.  I wonder if this guy was hatched just this year, or if he is a year old.

turkey toms

Meeting up on the other side of the backyard, the two Toms decide to move on, to better foraging grounds.

Male and female turkeys flock up in the fall, like many other bird species, but are segregated by sex, and to some extent by age.  Young males (non-breeding jakes) will often hang out together all fall and winter, while a hen and her brood, or even multiple hens and broods form a flock of their own during fall and winter.  Adult (breeding) males also form flocks outside of the breeding season, rarely including the young Toms — kind of like an “old boys’ club”.

Why did the turkey land on the roof?

There’s a story here…but we have to start at the beginning.

Tom Turkey still struts his stuff, on a daily basis, morning and evening.  This time there were three hens ignoring him.

Tom Turkey struts his stuff in the backyard on a daily basis, morning and evening. This time there were three hens ignoring him, unlike the other day.  He is quite a big bird, at least twice the size of the hens.

Suddenly just at sunset, the three hens perked up their heads, cackled to each other in turkey talk, and one by one in a burst of wing flapping, they flew off into the trees at the back of the yard.  I could hear them crashing and thrashing about back there as they settled on a branch.

I finally found one of the hens -- about 80  feet up in a giant cottonwood on a nice horizontal branch.  She paced back ad forth trying to find just the right spot to settle down for the night.

I finally found one of the hens — about 80 feet up in a giant cottonwood on a nice horizontal branch. She paced back ad forth trying to find just the right spot to settle down for the night.

But that left Tom with his deflated feathers alone in the backyard.  While I was photographing the hen, I heard heavy wing flapping and foot scrambling on the neighbor’s roof.

What was he doing up there -- looking around the neighborhood?

What was he doing up there — looking around the neighborhood?

He bobbed his head up and down, paced back and forth on the roof, and suddenly took off.

He bobbed his head up and down, paced back and forth on the roof, and suddenly took off.

A burst of flapping carried him just high enough to land on a thick horizontal branch about 50 feet off the ground.

A burst of flapping carried him just high enough to land on a thick horizontal branch about 50 feet off the ground.

So, apparently, Tom Turkey is so heavy he has to get to his roost in stages, using the neighbor’s roof as a launching platform to get to a high enough branch.

After trying out a few spots on the branch, he finally found the perfect spot for the night.

After trying out a few spots on the branch, he finally found the perfect spot for the night.

These spots were typical turkey roosts:  tall, mature trees, with at least one large horizontal branch high off the ground.  The best trees for turkey roosting spots have 30-50 feet of bare trunk below the first branches to foil predators, and are on the east or northeast facing slopes so the birds can warm themselves in the early morning sunlight. There are plenty of oaks in the backyard that meet turkey criteria for roost sites.

Ignored and rebuffed

He tried his best, but they seemed completely disinterested.

tom turkey displaying to hens

“hey, look at me!”

tom turkey displaying to hens

“maybe this angle, whaddaya’ think?

tom turkey displaying to hens

“hey, hey, look! I can make myself three times larger!”

tom turkey displaying to hens

“look, will ya?”

"I give up"

“I give up.”

Backyard visitors

I haven’t seen them in a long while, but on this rainy morning, a couple of visitors stopped by.

I think this sad-looking creature might be one of the twins born last spring.  The little antler buds present means he'll grow his first set of antlers, if he recovers from the starvation it looks like he has been suffering.

I think this sad-looking creature might be one of the twins born last spring. The antler buds present means he’ll grow his first set of antlers, if he recovers from the starvation it looks like he has been suffering.  He was accompanied by a full-grown doe and a smaller female, who I think was his twin.

In January, the does and her two fawns looked much healthier than they do now.

In January, the does and her two fawns looked much healthier than they do now.

The doe gave this guy a head butt and a nip to move him away from where she was feeding, so he explored the area under the bird feeder.

The doe gave this guy a head butt and a nip to move him away from where she was feeding, so he explored the area under the bird feeder.  Part of his scruffy appearance is probably a result of molting from the winter coat to the spring-summer fur, but he looks like he needs a brush-out, badly!

A couple of hours later, I heard gobbling in the backyard, and found a tom Turkey taking shelter from the rain under my deck.

Tom Turkey strutted around the backyard gobbling occasionally, usually when he was facing away from me or behind a post.

Tom Turkey strutted around the backyard gobbling occasionally, usually when he was facing away from me or behind a post.

Before he left, he took a long drink from the bird bath.

Before he left, he took a long drink from the bird bath.

Even though his feathers shed water very nicely, turkeys get very damp heads in the rain.  I've never really looked at the top of a turkey's head.  Part of it looks like their brain tissue is exposed, but it's just wrinkly skin.

Even though feathers shed water very nicely, turkeys get very damp heads in the rain. I’ve never really looked at the top of a turkey’s head. Part of it looks like their brain tissue is exposed, but it’s just wrinkly skin.

The Gathering

I don’t know where wild turkeys spent the recent miserable winter, but the bunch at Fort Snelling must have found plenty of sustenance.  On a recent warm (i.e., above freezing) day, they were out in great numbers along the road in the park.

A few of the more than two dozen birds shuffling through the leaf litter beneath some recently melted snowbanks.

A few of the more than two dozen birds shuffling through the leaf litter beneath some recently melted snowbanks.

The hens are almost camouflaged in the dappled sunlight beneath these trees, especially when they stand completely motionless.

The hens are almost perfectly camouflaged in the dappled sunlight beneath these trees and dried grass stems, especially when they stand completely motionless.

Hens stick together in small flocks outside of the breeding season, often foraging and roosting at night as a group.  However, in the breeding season (which must begin soon), hens join the all male flocks to be entertained by the strutting, drumming, and gobbling of multiple males.

The males, with their red wattles and glossy black and brown plumage stand out more conspicuously -- for good reason.

The males, with their red wattles and glossy black and brown plumage stand out more conspicuously — for good reason.

The role of the male turkey in the whole reproductive process is pretty simple — to look (and sound) good enough to attract as many females as possible.  Apparently, an individual male’s success with the opposite sex is better if he presents himself as part of a male duo — the dominant male having the most success and his sidekick lesser success but still able to pass along some of their genes.  This scheme works because the two males are often brothers sharing a lot of the same genes.

Males don’t participate in any of the nesting (which takes about 28 days) or chick rearing, so after an intense few weeks of feather ruffling and strutting, they rejoin their bachelor brothers for a pleasant summer of loafing.

A tom turkey displaying to several females in my backyard two years ago in early April.

A tom turkey displaying to several females in my backyard two years ago in early April.  The white head, blue face, long drooping “snood” hanging down over its beak, and red engorged wattles indicate a bird in the prime of its sexual vigor.