Turkeys: as Good as Gould

By Dan Weisz

Gould’s Turkeys are a subspecies of wild turkeys found in Arizona (and New Mexico and Northern Mexico). They are found in the Catalinas at higher elevations than the Foothills and there is a large flock in the Santa Ritas that are commonly seen in Madera Canyon. I came across that group at the Santa Rita Lodge this week and was taken by the many colors on these birds.

Besides the blues and pinks on the face of this young turkey, other facial features are striking. You can see its ear (which you can’t do on most birds). The crown or spike above its beak is called a “snood”. That sounds like the name of a pirate in Peter Pan! The snood will grow longer as this bird ages, eventually drooping down its face. Those pink, fleshy bumps on its head and throat are called “caruncles”. Caruncles and snood are two words that one doesn’t often hear.

In this adult Tom, the snood has grown long enough to droop down its beak and onto its throat. The blue and red colors are brighter on this bird’s head and you can see some of the iridescent feathers on its back.

This male “Tom” turkey was feeding on seeds on the ground, and you can see the red, bronze, green and gold feathers on its back. I think it is interesting to see how each of its feathers have a squared end to them.

A close-up of the side of one of the Toms.

There are five subspecies of Turkeys in the United States. The most common in our area are the Gould’s Turkeys. They can be distinguished from the Merriam’s Turkey by the Gould’s white-tipped tail feathers and white-ish edged rump feathers. Merriam’s Turkeys are more often found in the higher elevations north of the Gila River while Gould’s are the more common turkeys in the Southern Arizona mountains (Catalinas, Santa Ritas, Huachucas and Chiricauhas).

More colors

The white rump feathers with hints of copper in them.

Male turkeys will display to attract a female. He’ll do this by puffing out his feathers, spreading his tail and dragging his wings. This is called strutting.

And the copper plate of feathers at his side in front of the tail.

Turkeys are definitely beautiful birds!!
Turkey Myth-Buster: Ben Franklin did not propose to have the Turkey be the National Symbol. His design of the Great Seal was devoid of birds. As always, the committee work is what resulted in the Bald Eagle being on the seal and becoming our national symbol. Franklin did write a letter to his daughter later and did reflect on what he though of that decision as well as his love for the Turkey as a bird:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

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