Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Turkey

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HAT the turkey and not the eagle should have been chosen for our national bird, was the conviction of Benjamin Franklin. It is a native of our country, it is beautiful as to plumage, and like the American Indian, it has never yielded entirely to the influences of civilization. Through the hundreds of years of domestication it still retains many of its wild habits. In fact, it has many qualities in common with the red man. Take for instance its sun dance, which any one can witness who is willing to get up early enough in the morning and who has a flock of turkeys at hand. Miss Ada Georgia made a pilgrimage to witness this dance and she describes it thus: "While the dawn was still faint and gray, the long row of birds on the ridge-pole stood up, stretched legs and wings and flew down into the orchard beside the barnyard and began a curious, high-stepping, 'flip-flop' dance on the frosty grass. It consisted of little, awkward, up-and-down jumps, varied by forward springs of about a foot, with lifted wings. Both hens and males danced, the latter alternately strutting and hopping and all 'singing,' the hens calling 'Quit, quit,' the males accompanying with a high-keyed rattle, sounding like a hard wood stick drawn rapidly along a picket fence. As the sun came up and the sky brightened, the exhibition ended suddenly when 'The Captain,' a great thirty pound gobbler and leader of the flock, made a rush at one of his younger brethren who had dared to be spreading a tail too near to his majesty."

The bronze breed resembles most closely our native wild turkey and is therefore chosen for this lesson. The colors and markings of the plumage form the bronze turkey's chief beauty. From the skin of the neck, reaching half way to the middle of the back is a collar of glittering bronze with greenish and purple iridescence, each feather tipped with a narrow jet band. The remainder of the back is black except that each feather is edged with bronze. The breast is like the collar and at its center is a tassel of black bristles called the beard, which hangs limply downward when the birds are feeding; but when the gobbler stiffens his muscles to strut, this beard is thrust proudly forth. Occasionally the hen turkeys have a beard. The long quills, or primaries, of the wings are barred across with bands of black and white; the secondaries are very dark, luminous brown, with narrower bars of white. Each feather of the fan-shaped tail is banded with black and brown and ends with a black bar tipped with white; the tail coverts are lighter brown but also have the black margin edged with white. The colors of the hen are like those of the gobbler except that the bronze brilliance of breast, neck and wings is dimmed by the faint line of white which tips each feather.

The heads of all are covered with a warty wrinkled skin, bluish white on the crown, grayish blue about the eyes, and the other parts red. Beneath the throat is a hanging fold called the wattle, and above the beak a fleshy pointed knob called the caruncle, which on the gobbler is prolonged so that it hangs over and below the beak. When the bird is angry these carunculated parts swell and grow more vivid in color, seeming to be gorged with blood. The color of the skin about the head is more extensive and brilliant in the gobblers than in the hens. The beak is slightly curved, short, stout, and sharp-pointed, yellowish at the tip and dark at the base.

The eyes are bright, dark hazel with a thin red line of iris. Just back of the eye is the ear, seemingly a mere hole, and yet it leads to a very efficient ear, upon which every smallest sound impinges.

The legs of the young turkeys are nearly black, fading to a brownish gray when mature. The legs and feet are large and stout, the middle toe of the three front ones being nearly twice the length of the one on either side; the hind toe is the shortest of the four. On the inner side of the gobbler's legs, about one-third the bare space above the foot, is a wicked looking spur which is a most effective weapon. The wings are large and powerful; the turkey flies well for such a large bird and usually roosts high, choosing trees or the ridge-pole of the barn for this purpose.

In many ways the turkeys are not more than half domesticated. They insistently prefer to spend their nights out of doors instead of under a roof. They are also great wanderers and thrive best when allowed to forage in the fields and woods for a part of their food.

The gobbler is the most vainglorious bird known to us; when he struts to show his flock of admiring hens how beautiful he is, he lowers his wings and spreads the stiff primary quills until their tips scrape the ground, lifting meanwhile into a semi-circular fan his beautiful tail feathers; he protrudes his chest, raises the iridescent plumage of his neck like a ruff to make a background against which he throws back his red, white and blue decorated head. He moves forward with slow and mincing steps and calls attention to his grandeur by a series of most aggressive "gobbles." But we must say for the gobbler that, although he is vain, he is also a brave fighter. When beginning a fight he advances with wings lowered and sidewise as if guarding his body with the spread wing. The neck and the sharp beak are outstretched and he makes the attack so suddenly, that it is impossible to see whether he strikes with both wing and beak or only with the latter, as with fury he pounces upon his adversary, apparently striving to rip his neck open with his spurs.

Turkey hens usually begin to lay in April in this latitude and much earlier in more southern states. At nesting time each turkey hen strays off alone, seeking the most secluded spot she can find to lay the large, oval, brown-speckled eggs. Silent and sly, she slips away to the place daily, by the most round-about ways, and never moving in the direction of the nest when she thinks herself observed. Sometimes the sight of any person near her nest will cause her to desert it. The writer has spent many hours when a child, sneaking in fence corners and behind stumps and tree trunks, stalking turkeys' nests. Incubation takes four weeks. The female is a most persistent sitter and care should be taken to see that she gets a good supply of food and water at this time. Good sound corn or wheat is the best food for her at this period. When sitting she is very cross and will fight most courageously when molested on her nest.

Turkey nestlings are rather large, with long, bare legs and scrawny thin necks, and they are very delicate during the first six weeks of their lives. Their call is a plaintive "peep, weep," and when a little turkey feels lost its cry is expressive of great fear and misery. But if the mother is freely ranging, she does not seem to be much affected by the needs of her brood; she will fight savagely for them if they are near her, but if they stray, and they usually do, she does not seem to miss or hunt for them, but strides serenely on her way, keeping up a constant crooning "kr-rit, kr-rit," to encourage them to follow. As a consequence, the chicks are lost or get draggled and chilled by struggling through wet grass and leaves, that are no obstacle to the mother's strong legs, and thus many die. If the mother is confined in a coop it should be so large and roomy that she can move about without trampling on the chicks, and it should have a dry floor, since dampness is fatal to the little ones.

For the first week the chicks should be fed five times a day, and for the next five weeks they should have three meals a day. They should be given only just about enough to fill each little crop and none left over to be trodden under their awkward little feet. Their quarters should be kept clean and free from vermin.

Lesson XXXIV


Leading thought—The turkey is a native of America. It was introduced into Spain from Mexico in about 1518, and since then has been domesticated. However, there are still in some parts of the country flocks of wild turkeys. It is a beautiful bird and has interesting habits.

Method—If the pupils could visit a flock of turkeys the lesson would be given to a better advantage. If this is impossible, ask the questions a few at a time and let those pupils who have opportunities for observing the turkeys give their answers before the class.


1. Of what breed are the turkeys you are studying, Bronze, Black, Buff, White Holland or Narragansett?

2. What is the general shape and size of the turkey? Describe its plumage, noting every color which you can see in it. Does the plumage of the hen turkey differ from that of the gobbler?

3. What is the covering of the head of the turkey, what is its color and how far does it extend down the neck of the bird? Is it always the same color, and if not, what causes the change? Is the head covering alike in shape and size on the male and the female? What is the part called that hangs from the front of the throat below the beak? From above the beak?

4. What is the color of the beak? Is it short or long, straight or curved? Where are the nostrils situated?

5. What is the color of the turkey's eyes? Do you think it is a keen-sighted bird?

6. Where are the ears? Do they show as plainly as a chicken's ears do? Are turkeys quick of hearing?

7. Do turkeys scratch like hens? Are they good runners? Describe the feet and legs as to shape, size and color. Has the male a spur on his legs, and if so, where is it situated? For what is it used?

8. Can turkeys fly well? Are the wings small or comparatively large and strong for the weight of the body? Do turkeys prefer high or low places for perching when they sleep? Is it well to house and confine them in small buildings and parks as is done with other fowls?

9. Tell, as nearly as you can discover by close observation, how the gobbler sets each part of his plumage when he is "showing off" or strutting. What do you think is the bird's purpose in thus exhibiting his fine feathers? Does the "King of the flock" permit any such action by other "gobblers" in his company?

10. Are turkeys timid and cowardly or independent and brave, ready to meet and fight anything which they think is threatening to their comfort and safety?

11. When turkeys fight, what parts of their bodies seem to be used as weapons? Does the male "gobble" during a fight, or only as a challenge or in triumph when victorious? Do the hen turkeys ever fight, or only the males?

12. How early in the spring does the turkey hen begin to lay? Does she nest about the poultry yard and the barns or is she likely to seek some secret and distant spot where she may hide her eggs? Describe the turkey's egg, as well as you can, as to color, shape and size. Can one tell it by the taste from an ordinary hen's egg? About how many eggs does the turkey hen lay in her nest before she begins to "get broody" and want to sit?

13. How many days of incubation are required to hatch the turkey chick? Is it as downy and pretty as other little chicks? How often should the young chicks be fed, and what food do you think is best for them? Are turkey chicks as hardy as other chicks?

14. Is the turkey hen generally a good mother? Is she cross or gentle when sitting and when brooding her young? Is it possible to keep the mother turkey as closely confined with her brood as it is with the mother hen? What supplies should be given to her in the way of food, grits, dust-baths, etc.?

Supplementary reading—Birds that Hunt and are Hunted, Blanchan.

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