flocking up

The fall parade of birdlife has begun:  Canada geese migrating overhead in their V-shaped formations, juncos and white-throated sparrows littering the ground under the bird feeders, Sandhill Cranes gathering on corn and soybean stubble in farm fields to scratch out the last remaining grains there, and of course the turkeys…my regular afternoon visitors to the backyard, scratching through litter to find the nuts, berries, and seeds that might have eluded those omnipresent squirrels.

turkey flock

A month ago there were just 6. That grew to a flock of 10 regulars, and now there are 22 — hens and fledglings (poults).

turkey-flock-

turkey fledglings

trading information on where to look for the goodies?

Around sunset the flock gathers to fly off to their nightly roosts. The turkey poults line up on the hill at one side of the backyard, then dash down the hill gathering speed as they launch themselves into the air toward the oak tree branches where they will spend the night.

hen-turkey-on-its-roost

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).

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.

Turkey invasion

When turkeys around here flock up in the fall, they gather in large numbers.  We didn’t have much of an acorn crop from the oaks this year, but that hasn’t stopped the turkeys from looking under the leaves at the edge of the backyard.

I counted 22 of them, mostly hens and young of the year, with at least one very large tom, who stood apart from the group looking very wary.

Mr. Tom was enticed over to the bird feeder, where seed had fallen among the wildflower remnants.  His head was such a pale comparison to the bright red and blue of the breeding male I photographed earlier in the summer.

Male photographed in April 2012 (see earlier post here).

I tried to sneak up on a few of them, but they quickly strolled away, after giving me the once over.