fauna tracks & scat

Snow Stories: Fowl Play

So many snow stories in the stack! But we’ll go in reverse order this time — even if there are some shrew-d observations and im-possum-ble sightings that came before this one.

Today, tale of turkeys. Though not the *tail* of turkeys, just their footprints.

I’ve seen what I believed to be turkey sign in the woods a few times over the past weeks, before there was snow. Sizable areas of ground that had been thoroughly scratched up. But without tracks, I couldn’t be certain. There was one day where I found turkey scat inside the scratched patch, so that one was pretty conclusive, but the rest were conjecture. I love turkeys, and always like to see confirmation that they are around.

Scratched ground from turkey foraging at bottom of the image, tracks leading away up top.

Our first summer here we had a little turkey family who would pass through our yard like clockwork every evening. A bundle of baby turkeys, trundling through the yard alongside their adult protectors. It happened over a few weeks, and we got to watch those goofy little turnips growing up before our eyes.

Another summer, we had a large tom come and take advantage of a sand pile we keep in the yard near our firepit — he used it to have a truly epic dust bath. If you thought it was enjoyable to watch a tiny silkie chicken enjoying a dirt bath, you should see a tom going to town for his spa-day.

Our trail camera has managed to record turkeys in our woods a few times. Unlike the savvy fox and the skittish deer, turkeys give fewer bleeps. When we’re up there at the same time as a flock, and see them in person, they make a noise I think of as a turkey clearing its throat, and then everyone just walks a little faster and in the opposite direction to us.

From the trail camera, around 7:30AM on an October morning. There are at least two turkeys in this photo… see them both?

As I said, I love wild turkeys. Much like the chickens, I love that they have their own turkey agendas and they are just getting on with it. They have places to be and things to do.

Besides their overall temperment and interesting looks, here are three specific things I enjoy about turkeys: (1) you can tell the sex of a wild turkey from the shape of their poops; (2) they roost in trees; and closely related to 2, (3) wild turkeys can fly.

I don’t know why it took me until adulthood to learn that turkeys can fly. If you’ve only known “meat birds”, it’s a pretty easy fact to miss. The poultry we breed for eating has been thoroughly messed with. We alter not only their diet and the environment we force them to live in, but also the fundamentals of their biology. We’re so focused on forcing them to grow large amounts of breast meat, that a bird who should be capable of flight is grounded for the whole of its life, all for a larger portion of meat at Thanksgiving. Ugh.

How I learnt wild turkeys can fly, and that they roost in trees (don’t worry I’ll circle back to the poop bit) happened in an incomparably magical way. On YouTube one day, I stumbled across a video of turkeys taking flight, and was gobsmacked. The very next day, I went for a walk in our woods, and saw turkeys take off from our walking path and roost for the night in our trees. Now that is an immersive learning experience.

Though they don’t roost there anymore (that I know of), there were a number of evenings when if I went for a walk at dusk, and looked closely, I could spot turkeys tucking themselves into high branches for the night. For such large birds, they are surprisingly difficult to spot once they are still! Watching a wild bird settle into the branches of a tree for the night settles your soul.

Sweet dreams.

On turkeys’ more rambunctious side, I had another extremely memorable encounter, on one of those S’Marchy days in the seasonal borderlands between late winter and early spring. I was standing in our yard, making maple syrup. I heard some kerfuffling on the hillside, and looked up to see a gang of turkeys turkeying through the woods, headed my way. While I was recording them… well, see for yourself!

I like to think that turkey was trying to give me a high-five.

Last but not least, let’s talk poop. Scat is such an important part of tracking, and it’s wonderful to learn some of its right-in-plain-sight secrets.

Male and female turkeys leave different shaped deposits of poop behind. Male turkeys, “toms”, produce scat that is more of an “I” or “J” shape, while female turkeys, “hens”, poop more of a coiled or shapeless mass. It all has to do with their plumbing.

Here is a very good description of why:

“The quirk of clumping results from the fact that turkeys, like many birds, expel their droppings from a multi-functional orifice also used for reproduction. Separation of the terminal ends of their genital and digestive tracts just isn’t their thing. And that a one-stop shop is called a cloaca.

In female turkeys, the droppings exit the large intestine into the cloaca. Because this little corridor is large and stretchy (remember, it fits around their eggs as well), the droppings can curl and clump before finally exiting.

Male turkeys have a rudimentary phallus in their cloacas located near the tail end of their digestive tract. That means less space for the droppings on their way out — no wiggle room for coiling.

Why don’t all birds show this kind of sex-specific poop shape? In other species, like chickens, the males’ genitalia are further reduced, so their poops are less distinctive.”

~ “Turd Tales“, Discover Magazine

The more you know!

So was it a tom or a hen’s track I was following in the snow, rummaging around the floor of our woods? Well here’s the “evidence” below. I bet you can tell for yourselves now, turkey trackers!