I can’t think of November without thinking of turkey. It is the one month of the year that the turkey becomes a star, although it usually ends badly for them. I am a vegetarian, so I don’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving, but at the Wildlife Center we do take the time to give thanks. We want to thank all our generous donors and volunteers who help us to keep our doors open every day, 365 days a year to care for any wild animal in Massachusetts that needs our help. We have treated over 2,200 animals this year. We couldn’t do it without you.
Wild Turkeys called Massachusetts home for many years and their numbers were plentiful. Due to population explosion, hunting and loss of habitat, the last known native bird was killed in 1851. Turkeys were gone from Massachusetts. In the 1970′s, Mass Wildlife trapped 37 turkeys in New York and released them in the Berkshires. By 1978 there were 1,000 birds. It was a very successful reintroduction. In 1991, the turkey was named the official bird of the state. Now, we have 25,000-plus turkeys in the state. Sometimes I think they are all on my street.
Turkeys are a game bird regularly spotted all over Cape Cod. They are active during the day, wandering from yard to yard, in groups called rafters, and crossing streets without looking both ways. Unfortunately, the most common injury we see with turkeys is from being hit by a car. They get head injuries, broken wings and broken legs. We get lots of calls about injured turkeys that are still able to eat and fly, but despite the injury they cannot be caught. Wild animals will avoid capture until they are very debilitated because they see us as predators.
Turkeys can indeed fly and roost at night in trees, on railings, roofs, and even on cars. Because they are a game bird, they can still be hunted legally. We also see turkeys with gunshot wounds and with lead poisoning as a result of the lead shot. Many injuries (like broken bones and lead poisoning) can be treated, depending on the severity. These are the lucky ones that get to be released.
We also get in a lot of turkey poult orphans. They may have gotten separated from their family or the mother may have been killed, and these little guys are found on their own. Our course of action is to stabilize them and then try to find a turkey mother with a brood of poults around the same age. These mothers will adopt poults and raise them as their own. That is the most successful way for them to be raised. If we cannot find any suitable adoptive mothers, then we will of course rear them until they are ready to be released.
Turkeys have beautiful feathers that shimmer in sunlight. Up close, they are really attractive birds. They generally do not try to interact with humans unless you are feeding them (which we don’t encourage), but because they can see us as subordinates in their pecking order, they may try to attack if you get too close.
Turkey Vultures (pictured) or Turkey Buzzards are a completely different bird. Their size and coloring can be similar to that of a wild turkey, but they have very distinctive, bright red, featherless head. They also have an impressive six-foot wingspan. They have a slow, wobbly fight and ride the thermals whenever they can. They are often the first sign of Spring as they are seen soaring above.
The first confirmed breeding pair in Massachusetts was in 1954. Since then, their numbers have grown, but due to habitat loss and human intervention, the turkey vulture is now protected by Massachusetts and federal laws.
Turkey vultures are the consummate scavenger. They are seen in fields and on the side of the road eating carrion (dead things). They almost never attack anything alive. They have an excellent sense of smell and that is how they locate their meals. They are the most common large carnivorous bird in North America. They are gregarious and like to roost together at night. Sometimes dozens of them together.
Both parents incubate and raise the chicks, usually 1-3 eggs laid on the ground in a spot away from humans. The eggs are incubated for 60-84 days, and the young stay with the parents for 9-10 weeks. They are feed a diet of semi-digested, rotted meat by regurgitation. Regurgitation is also their primary form of defense, and they can project this vile-smelling mass up to 10 feet. When caring for them here at the center, they often reward us for cleaning their enclosure and feeding them by projectile vomiting on us. It rates up there with my top three bad smells.
The most common injuries for turkey vultures are being hit by a car because they often feed on the side of the road, ingesting poison from dead animals, and lead poisoning from lead shot, even though hunting them is illegal. Although they generally migrate to North Carolina or Louisiana in the Winter, last winter we cared for two turkey vultures that chose not to leave and became frozen to the ground in a blizzard. They were brought to us by Fish and Wildlife. We slowly thawed out their frozen feathers, checked them for wounds and kept them for a few days to build up their strength and food reserves. We then were able, we released them, unharmed, back to their home.
The most interesting fact about turkey vultures is that have developed a way to protect themselves from the spread of disease from eating carrion, both by having a featherless head and also by killing bacteria by urinating on their legs (urohidrosis) This also helps them with cooling down.
In October, we had 150 wildlife admissions, and 30 successful releases, with many animals remaining in our care.
To learn more about the Cape Wildlife Center or help in its mission, visit www.capewildlifecenter.com or call 508-362-0111.
Caryn Ritchie is the volunteer coordinator for the Cape Wildlife Center and holds both a Massachusetts wildlife rehabilitator’s license and a federal permit to rehabilitate migratory birds. This is a repost of an article from The Barnstable Patriot.