Anting turkeys

Type that phrase (“anting turkeys”) into google and you’re likely to get “did you mean hunting turkeys?”  No, of course not, I meant exactly what I typed — are wild turkeys one of the birds that use anting behavior to cleanse themselves of parasites?  And yes, they are. (Read more about this behavior in Bird Watching Daily.

great-tit-anting

Great Tit anting behavior (observed last May 216 in Wales) is typical of what birds do to rid themselves of eternal parasites.

Over 200 bird species have been observed to search out areas where ants are likely to be found, immerse themselves in the dirt and dust there, and fluff their feathers as if they were bathing.  With a big bird like a turkey, it’s quite a show.

anting-turkeys-

Five Wild Turkeys immersed themselves in pine needle fluff and dirt. Apparently this is a favorite place to go “ant”, because there were numerous turkey-shaped scrapes in the hillside.

anting-turkeys-

Scrape the dirt, fluff feathers, and wiggle around until a good layer of litter and dirt works its way into those feathers.

And the reason for this behavior — ants release formic acid as a deterrent to being disturbed or threatened, and formic acid turns out to be a relatively good miticide (i.e., insecticide for mites).

anting-turkeys-

Crouched down in the litter, the first thing turkeys did was scrape the dirt vigorously with their bill. Was that to agitate the ants and get them moving?

anting-turkeys-

Get those legs into the actions as well, and stir up the litter and dirt behind and beneath them, while rustling feathers.

anting-turkeys-

Rolling around, making sure head and neck get immersed in the ant-laden dirt and litter.

“But that’s not the end of the story.  The ants having released their toxic chemical are now fair game to be eaten, and provide some nutrition if a bird eats enough of them. So, as the bird preens its feathers after its ant dust bath, it can safely consume any stray ants it comes across — sort of like a dessert menu item. And this was quite nicely proven in an experiment by two Cornell biologists (in 2009) who observed that Blue Jays ate 90% of the ants that had been relieved of their formic acid, but engaged in anting behavior instead with ants that were intact (containing their sacs of formic acid).” (Backyard Biology, May 5, 2016)

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).

Backyard Visitors

I often see a couple of hen turkeys strolling through the backyard together, checking for spilled seed under the bird feeders or probing for goodies in the wildflower garden. But yesterday when I looked out in the backyard, there were a couple of very large turkeys that looked too big to be hens, just loafing and taking a break in the shade of the walnut tree.

wild turkey males

One was a little more timid than the other.

I would have thought these were females, but they appear to have remnants of red wattles, and a slight bluish cast to their neck skin.

wild turkey males

That bird (on the left) is either a hen on steroids, or a post-breeding season male.  It doesn’t have the typical beard hanging down its breast, though.

wild turkey males-

Usually females don’t have the assortment of colorful feathers the male does.

wild turkey male

And still this one rests in the shade while its partner pecks at this and that and then finally moseys down the hill to the neighbor’s backyard.

Does anyone know if tom turkeys lose their beard, wattles, and iridescent plumage in the non-breeding season?

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”.

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.

What’s for dinner?

turkey drinking at the bird bath

What?....Me?

What?….Me?

I'm much too pretty to eat.

I’m much too pretty to eat.

Happy Thanksgiving…may your day be filled with pleasant smells and memories.

Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often. ~Johnny Carson

the beauty prize goes to…

me, me, me!

ME, ME, ME!  ta-dah!

Strutting, posing, gobbling, fluffing, more strutting, this magnificent tom made his way across the yard to the bird feeder and spent most of the morning and a lot of the afternoon there.  A few of his many poses to show off his colors.

There were no hens present, so he didn't do the full tail up, wings down display.

There were no hens present, so he didn’t do the full tail up, wings down display.

How many colors do you see?

How many colors do you see?

Wattles on the neck become engorged with blood when the bird is "excited" and turn bright red.

Wattles on the neck become engorged with blood when the bird is “excited” and turn bright red.

That little appendage above the beak is called a snood.  It turns bright blue when the turkey is sexually excited, and bright red when it is ready to fight.

That little appendage above the beak is called a snood. It turns bright blue when the turkey is sexually excited, and bright red when it is ready to fight.  Sometimes it hangs  down loosely flopping over the bill (must get in the way when he pecks at food on the ground!).

Little appreciated factoids about one of our national treasures:

  • Turkeys really can fly!  Fast, in fact, up to 60 mph for a short 1/4 mile stretch.  This is an even more impressive feat when you consider that wild males can weigh over 10 kg (more than 20 pounds) but have a meager wingspan of just over 1 meter (around 4 feet).   Compared with a Great Blue Heron, which has roughly the same wingspan, but 1/10 the body weight, turkeys are flying tanks!
  • Why is this bird called a turkey, instead of the Great Breasted Iridescent Pheasant?  Blame it on the British, who were confused about where they were getting their game birds.  British imports coming from both Asia and the Americas once went through Istanbul (Constantinople, then).  The British simply called the birds by the name of their import origin — Turkey, and the name stuck.