Friday, April 29, 2011

Awaiting the King

The light is just beginning to turn that wonderful honey amber color of early evening, right about six o'clock with maybe an hour of daylight left. It has been a wonderful spring day - temps in the high 60s, sunny and no wind. The days grow longer now, seemingly at a quickened pace.

A musical menagerie of bird songs and calls fills my ears as they resonate from all about - meadowlarks, robins, crows, mourning doves, turkeys, red-winged blackbirds, etc. Everyone appears to be applauding the day. Fitting how at sunset, life seems content to just celebrate itself - for its own sake.

Keeping me company with my thoughts is a group of eleven turkey hens busy feeding on the cracked corn that I throw out in an area of prairie grass and cottonwoods about thirty yards from the house - for their enjoyment and mine. I'm awaiting the arrival of the toms. They should be along soon as they are now at the peak of their display period. Already some of the hens have disappeared to begin building nests and laying eggs. Most of my turkey pictures come from this bunch as they all go about their business through the tall grasses and cottonwoods near the house.

This past winter brought change. During previous years the turkeys disappeared about early November despite my cracked corn meals and we didn't see them again until early March. This year they wintered with us as well, roosting in the tall cottonwoods nearby and staying plump on the corn. I have no idea what changed their pattern, but after a winter of daily feeding, they have become so habituated to me that I'm not sure I can call them wild turkeys anymore. I no longer use a blind to photograph them.

My attention is drawn back to the birds as I see the toms striding up and out of the creek draw. This bunch now includes four males, two large and mature ones along with two younger that were jakes or immature toms until this spring. Noticeably absent is the largest of the toms, one I call The King. Typically, he will make his entrance when all are present to observe.

The King is in fact one of the most photogenic toms I have ever seen - never a broken or missing feather in his fan, huge and stately with a bushy beard that literally drags on the ground when he feeds. Perfectly proportioned in every way, his display is nothing less than gorgeous. Each of the other toms falls off just a bit thought still making for nice images, but they are not this bird. And now that he has chosen to winter here, there is even less chance that a hunter will take him.

The young toms begin to display as they approach the feeding hens, showing smaller fans with the middle feathers standing taller and stubby beards. How they pale in comparison to The King. The older tom gobbles a bit, but soon all three birds are distracted by the corn and settle in with the hens for supper.

A loud and unmistakable gobble resonates from within the cottonwood trees, grabbing the attention of the birds before me. All three toms gobble back as I see movement coming through the tall grass. Enter His Arrogance, The King.

With typical flair and pomposity the great bird strides forth to greet his subjects, making the usual drumming sound as his secondary wing feathers drag across the ground. His huge fan turns one way and then the other as the lumpy folds of skin under his throat called a dewlap turn fire engine red and his head takes on a complex pattern of white and bluish-purple. The other toms step aside as this grandiose entrance is made. Elvis has entered the building.

(above & below) Two mature tom turkeys go into a full fan and display as they glide past one another in motions that are reminiscent of a ballet. The next several weeks will bring scenes like this one throughout the region.

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(above & right) Except for the tom's beard, an adult turkey replaces its entire plumage once a year with the molt taking place during summer when heat retention is not as important. The beard is actually a type of feather which rarely exceeds about 11 inches due to the wear they incur while dragging on the ground during feeding.

(right) In some respects the turkey's eyesight is superior to man's. They do not have to focus both eyes to see well, being able to look in opposite directions simultaneously. While birds in general cannot see as many color hues as mammals, turkeys are color sensitive as is proved by the way they react to the color changes in the head and neck of a gobbler.

(left) Despite Benjamin Franklin's well known preference for the turkey as our national symbol over the bald eagle, it's hard to imagine this profile having the same impact on the national seal.

(right) Like most ground nesting birds, the plumage is much more drab on the hen which suffers from much higher rates of predation because of the hazards of nesting and rearing poults.

(above) In spite of their weight, a turkey can shoot into the air from a complete standstill, moving away at 55 miles per hour. Their flight distances are short, however, maybe one-eighth of a mile before they fatigue quickly.

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(above & below) Gobbling is not so much intended as aggression between toms as it is the act of beckoning to the hens, "Here I am, here I am."

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(above & right) Winter makes frequent returns during spring on the high plains, even during the late days of April, but seems to have little effect on these birds' courtship activities as they will even strut and display in the falling snow.

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(left) The big tom continues his strut even as the day closes across the grasslands.

(above) As the final light of the day disappears, the turkeys fly one by one up into the tops of tall cottonwoods where they will roost for the night, free from the clutches of nighttime ground predators such as raccoons and bobcats.


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