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Birds of the Western Slope Nov. 23, 2016

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Photo by Randy Sunderland Wild turkeys strut in a backyard in Delta County.

Wild Turkey

I am hoping to find the wild turkeys that I found a few years ago along this backroad. They were "new birds" for me then because they were named "wild turkeys." But when I found them, they looked just like the domesticated turkeys that my parents raised to sell during the holiday season. But now the domesticated turkeys usually have white plumage.

The turkeys should be about a yard long, with a five-foot wingspan. The long legs support a 10-pound plus body with a thin neck and small head.

My Sibley Guide to Birds describes two subspecies and I'm not sure which I'll find. The one usually described is the darker Eastern wild turkey with a rufous tail while the Southwestern one has a pale or whitish margin on the tip of the tail plus whitish tipped feathers throughout.

This is the only North American creature termed "wild" and I've often wondered why. In The Bird Awareness Newsletter (sponsors of the Thanksgiving Day Bird Count), Dr. Hewston states that there are two species in North America: the Ocellated Turkey of Yucatan and Guatemala and the Common Turkey originally ranging from Maine and Canada to southern Mexico and from the eastern U.S. to Arizona. This species includes several geographical subspecies including the one with white tipped feathers. This bird was apparently domesticated by the people of Mexico and the Spanish explorers took it back to Spain in 1519. By the 1600s turkeys had been introduced throughout Europe and the Pilgrims brought some of these tame birds with them. But here they found native turkeys running wild! Hence, wild turkeys.

And why "turkey" which is the name of a European nation? Hewston includes research from Walter Harter's "Birds in Fact & Legend." Perhaps our bird was confused with other fowl introduced from or through Turkey. Our bird (by way of Mexico to Spain to Europe and back home) was named by European scientists and given the label of Meleagris gallopaivo with Latin Meleagris meaning "guinea fowl" and gallopiavo meaning "wild turkey". Translation: Guinea-fowl-wild-turkey. So what's in a name!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Birds of the Western Slope, Evelyn Horn
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