Walking in the woods today looking for some black and white opportunities, not expecting to see much in the way of color, I kept noticing feathers on the ground. At first I didn’t pay much attention – you see feathers around at times. But then I continued to see them, similar ones, littered around the trails and woods. Now I’m paying more attention and realize they are turkey feathers.
The few times I hunted turkeys with my father he emphasized I needed to make sure I was close enough and using a full choke barrel on my shotgun or else I wouldn’t be able to kill one. His experience was that turkeys have so many feathers layered tightly on their bodies that you have to pump a lot of bird shot into them at close range in order to generate stopping power. I didn’t pay that much attention at the time, after all, I was a kid with a shotgun who didn’t expect much in the forest could stand up to my shooting. Didn’t get a chance to test my skill against a turkey but later I heard from other hunters about how hard they are to bring down.
Turns out adult turkeys have from 5000 to 6000 feathers on their body, laid out in patterns called tracts based on what part of the body they cover. They undergo a complete molt (replacement of feathers) each year from spring to fall. You never see a “nude” turkey because they replace feathers in different places at different times, apparently.
Flight feathers are boldly striped, alternating dark and light colors. Tail feathers are also striped but more subtly. The tail feathers are probably what most people visualize when they think of a turkey, that fan of brown, gold and bronze feathers backdropping a gobbler strutting around trying to call attention to himself.
Wild turkeys in this country were almost an endangered species resulting from a combination of habitat loss and overhunting. In the early 1930’s there were only about 30,000 wild turkeys left, a sad tribute to the bird Benjamin Franklin thought should be our national symbol. Fortunately the efforts of many people, both public and private, turned the trend around and now there are seemingly turkeys everywhere – an estimate of around 7 million nationwide (Source). There’s even a flock that hang out around the Omaha airport and during last year’s crane photo tour we saw a flock strolling down the entrance ramp onto I-80 westbound. When we came back by an hour or so later they were still wandering down the shoulder of the interstate, apparently taking Horace Greeley’s admonition seriously.