Wild turkey flocks are going through changes, declining here, expanding there.
In Pennsylvania their population declined 24% in the past two decades. At their peak in the early 2000’s there were 280,000 statewide. This year there are only 212,200. The graph below shows the turkeys’ rise and fall, 1995 to 2013, carefully tracked by the PA Game Commission (PGC) because turkeys are a game bird.
The Game Commission notes that their decline is from a combination of factors:
- Negative habitat changes: mono-culture farms, invasive plants, less food (fewer insects, acorns, beech nuts, etc), and less cover (declines in shrubby cover).
- Unpredictable weather and extreme weather events when poults are young
- An increase in predators, especially in poor cover areas.
In response to the downward trend the Game Commission lowered the harvest limits so there is less hunting pressure on the birds. They are also studying whether any disease has had a significant effect.
Pennsylvania is not alone. Wild turkeys are declining across the eastern U.S. from western New York state to Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri.
Wild turkeys are especially abundant on Cape Cod where there’s plenty of food and cover and very little hunting. Flocks roam the neighborhoods, scratch for grubs in grass and gardens, and challenge small dogs and people when they feel threatened.
Wild turkeys have pretty much taken over. Here’s a flock in Bob Kroeger’s yard during a Nor’easter in March 2018.
If you’re missing turkeys here in Pennsylvania, I know you’ll find them there.
(photos taken on Cape Cod by Bob Kroeger, graph from the PA Game Commission; click on the caption to see the original)
Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: Nome vicinity, 22 June 2019
Willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) are ground dwelling birds that live where it snows about half the year. They’re also the favorite prey of many species so they need to be able to hide in place.
Their plumage provides camouflage but it has to be clever because the ground changes color from white in winter, to mottled during snow melt, to brown in summer. Ptarmigans solve this by molting continuously from April to November.
Their basic plumage is winter white to match the snow. It allows them to stand still and disappear …
… or burrow in the snow with only their heads exposed.
In April the snow starts to melt and the ptarmigans start to molt. The male looks like a snow patch as he begins his courtship clucking.
In June the male and female are incubating eggs. They still match the ground; they’re brown.
Their chicks match the ground, too.
By late summer they look patchy again. Their plumage gets ready for the first snow.
In November they’re back to winter white.
Ptarmigans change with the seasons.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, and Dan Arndt via Flickr; click on the captions to see the originals)
This is not somebody’s rooster. He didn’t escape to the wild but he has the same ancestors as the chickens we humans domesticated about 8,000 years ago for meat and eggs.
Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) are native to India and east Asia but were introduced to Indonesia, the Phillippines and Polynesia where they remain wild today. When humans first came to Hawaii in 400 AD they brought red junglefowl with them. The birds walked into the jungle and felt right at home.
Today our Victor Emanuel Nature Tour visits Koke’e State Park on the island of Kauai where red junglefowl roam and run.
We might hear them greet the dawn with a shorter call than the domestic rooster’s.
And we might see some well-camouflaged females.
It will be strange to see a Life Bird that’s also the original chicken.
(credits: two photos of solo males in Hawaii by Aaron Budgor on Flickr. female from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
Tour Day 4: Koke’e State Forest and Alakai Swamp, island of Kauai
Pigeons (Columba livia) and the raptors who hunt them have evolved together for millions of years. The raptors’ successful hunts leave only the fastest, most maneuverable pigeons. Speedy, elusive pigeons mean only the most skillful raptors can survive. Most of us never get to see this interaction so this dramatic video from Romania is a real treat.
The pigeons stay in a tight flock because raptors can’t pick out a victim in a moving ball of birds. The raptors try to separate one bird from the group by slicing through the flock. If it works, the raptor pursues the lone bird.
Who will win?
(video by pomumbeiro on YouTube)
Humans build expressways but we aren’t the only ones who use them. Back in 2004 scientists tested a theory that racing pigeon owners suspected was true: Pigeons will follow major roads to guide their flight home. In fact, the birds will go out of their way to turn at intersections.
In a study conducted in Italy, researchers released racing pigeons fitted with GPS backpacks from sites 20 to 80km from home (12.5 to 50 miles). In over 200 flights, the data showed that experienced pigeons preferred to follow roads and rail lines in the early and middle parts of their trips. As they got close to home they left the road grid and made a beeline for the loft.
On the first trip from each site pigeons didn’t use the grid, but the more they made the same trip the more they used big roads.
Why do they do this? Scientists suspect that easier navigation above major roads makes up for taking slightly longer routes. The birds don’t have to think about where they’re going and can focus on flying fast and watching for predators.
That’s why I take expressways in my home town, even when they’re clogged at rush hour. I know the back roads but I’d rather not think about navigating.
Read more about the 2004 study in Science Daily.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)
On Thanksgiving 2018
Despite their size and ungainly appearance, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can fly. They have to be airborne twice a day to get to and from their roosts in trees.
Most of us never see them fly but here’s some indirect evidence. The wild turkey below was photographed on Thompson Island in the bay east of Boston, Massachusetts. The photographer’s mobile phone provided GPS.
Here’s the wild turkey’s location.
He didn’t swim. He had to fly. But the wild turkey’s flight range is only 1.6km = 1 mile.
My guess is that he landed at the south end Thompson Island, 0.83 miles from the mainland. At 60 miles per hour — yes, that’s the wild turkey’s top speed — it would have taken him less than a minute.
Who knew that wild turkeys could move that fast?
(photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
If we want to understand what birds are saying the easiest way to learn is from the birds that live with us.
Sue Cross at The Holistic Hen observes her free range chickens closely to find out what they’re saying. Sometimes a message isn’t clear at first.
This hen flew up to touch the door repeatedly. Watch the video to find out why.
Read more about chicken behavior and organic forest farming at The Holistic Hen.
(video from The Holistic Hen on YouTube)
What is that hooting? Is it an owl calling in the middle of the day?
In the spring, male mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) perch high, puff their throats and make the deepest loudest sound possible for a bird so small. The first rising note is lost in the distance, but the last two or three low notes carry far.
Last week at Moraine State Park I was momentarily transfixed when I heard “Hoooo Hoooo” across the valley. When I paused to listen I realized that the cadence didn’t match any local owl. Not the great horned owl. Not the barred owl. I heard only two notes but they were spaced like the mourning dove’s.
Listen as a mourning dove sings one rising note, then 3 or 2 low notes. Imagine you can hear only the last two notes. (Xeno-canto recording XC153652 by Paul Marvin at Moosehead NWR, Maine)
Now compare it to these two owls:
GREAT HORNED OWL recording by Ted Floyd, Boulder, CO at Xeno-canto XC344952
BARRED OWL recording by Tim Spahr, Ithaca, NY at Xeno-canto XC25239
Here’s a mourning dove trying to attract a mate (YouTube video by jkontrab).
Don’t be fooled when you hear this Hoooo-ing sound. It’s just a lonesome dove.
(screenshot from the YouTube video by jkontrab, audio from Xeno Canto; see the captions for media sources)