As breeding season gets underway and gobbling can be heard in our woodlands and meadows, we notice the Wild Turkey’s (Meleagris gallopavo) activities. This bird is native to North and Central America and was domesticated in Mexico centuries ago. In the sixteenth century Spanish conquerors brought some of these domesticated birds back to Spain where they continued to be bred in captivity. These turkeys were later introduced to France and England. European colonists eventually brought the turkey full circle – back to America as a domesticated version of its wild American cousin.
Wild Turkeys feed on seeds and nuts, as well fruits, leaves, insects (like grasshoppers) and even small vertebrates (like salamanders). In the fall and winter acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts become the mainstay of the Wild Turkey diet. All food consumed by the turkey, including seeds, nuts and crunchy insects, pass through the turkey’s gizzard, the hard muscular section of the stomach. The gizzard grinds the food with the aid of “grit,” such as sand or small pebbles, which the turkey ingests for this very reason. In experiments it was found that a turkey’s gizzard could crush an object that required more than 400 pounds of pressure per square inch!
Patches of bare dry ground are attractive to wild turkeys not only for the grit they offer, but also as sites for dust baths. Loose dusty sand is an ideal medium in which to look for signs of wild turkey bathing activity. A flock will spend a good deal of time at the site as each turkey takes a turn, lowering its body to the ground while flinging sand onto its back with its wings. Puffing its feathers allows the sand to reach all the turkey’s skin and feather surfaces. A vigorous shake, some preening of feathers, and the turkey is ready to resume its daily activities, perhaps leaving behind footprints and wing impressions in the dust for an observant person to discover.