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Turkey neighbors spark curiosity, education

September 14, 2007|By LISA PREJEAN

This summer a flock of wild turkeys settled in the woods around our home. Some days I've seen 19 birds. Other days I've counted 20.

These birds are usually on the move in the early morning and at dusk. My children go from window to window around the house trying to catch a glimpse of the birds as they travel from the woods to the cornfield.

I enjoy watching the birds during my morning walk.

One day there was a lone bird in the yard when I walked out to get the paper.

"Where are your friends?" I asked him.

He poked his head in my direction and then strutted away.

I'm sure my friend Larry isn't surprised that I talk to the turkeys. Once I admitted in a column that I talk to our neighbor's cows. Larry has ribbed me quite a bit about that. That's OK. I'm just a kid at heart, and kids talk to animals.

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I thought I wouldn't see the rest of the birds that day and decided to concentrate on the front-page headlines as I made my way back home.

When I neared the house, I looked up from reading and nearly stumbled into the startled birds. They quickly ran and flew away.

Another morning I quietly observed the birds making their twice-daily trek. One bird in particular captured my attention. He was chasing after one of his buddies while squawking loudly. As soon as the chased bird would get away, the chaser would creep up on him again, getting close enough to fuss and chase again.

It made me wonder what the chased bird had done. Eat a piece of the chaser's corn? Fluff his feathers at the chaser's gal? Whatever it was, he was paying the price.

I decided that if these creatures were going to live around me, I should learn something about them.

There are more than 30,000 wild turkeys in the state of Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Web site, www.dnr.state.md.us.

These birds spend the majority of their time on the ground but are capable of powerful flights for short distances. Wild turkeys can spread their wings and glide up to 50 mph, and they can run as fast as 25 mph, according to the book "Wild Turkey, Tame Turkey" by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent.

That explains the turkeys' quick getaway when I stumbled into the flock.

My third-graders seem to enjoy the stories I tell them about these birds. The tales fit in nicely with the unit we are about to start on American Indians.

In her book, Patent tells of many ways that the wild turkey was useful to American Indians. They hunted wild turkeys for food. They used the birds' feathers in clothing and to help arrows fly true. The bones were used to make beads and spoons. As with other things in nature, American Indians found a use for almost every part of the birds.

These wild creatures do not look like the farm-raised tom turkeys that eventually will grace a holiday table.

They are sleek, agile and have multihued brown feathers, a perfect camouflage for the wooded areas they inhabit.

Male birds, which weigh an average of 16 pounds, look like they have a beard. These are stiff, thin feathers on their chests. They also have spurs on the back of their legs above their feet.

The females can be identified by their feathers, which are edged with a lighter hue than the males' feathers. The females weigh an average of 9 pounds.

It's hard to get close enough to the birds to identify them, so I mostly gaze at them from a distance.

It's understandable why Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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