Toms and Turbines


Ah yes November. The month that seems to always get the leap frog treatment in society, and yet the same month that everyone’s stomachs yearn for. It’s the month when the spirit of Halloween goes back into the shadows for another year, and thoughts of Old Saint Nick begin to draw near. But before we begin roasting chestnuts on an open fire, we’ve got some other cooking to take care of, with cranberry sauce and gravy surrounded by the trimmings of a holiday meal, with the center of the dining table reserved for one item only. The Turkey.


Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are a species unique to North America, with 5 known subspecies being found across the North American Continent (Another species exists in South America, known as the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellate)). These 5 subspecies (Eastern, Osceola, Gould, Merriam and Rio Grande) inhabit 49 of the 50 United States – sorry Alaska – as well as the southern Canadian Provinces. While these birds are all members of the same species (save for the Ocellated), subtle differences in coloration and geographic distribution are what define these birds. Such differences are easily defined when comparing subspecies like an Eastern turkey from a Merriam’s. These differences being the notable variation in tail color, with Eastern males (“Toms”) displaying tail feathers (“Fans”) tipped with a dull Bronze color, while Merriam’s Toms are known for their cream, almost white colored tail feathers. Also, their distribution shows a stark contrast, with Eastern’s being found, like their name implies, in the eastern half of the Nation, although not in its entirety, as the Osceola turkey occupies the Florida panhandle. Whereas in the case of the Merriam’s, they prefer the mountainous regions of the west, with the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, the Mogollon Rim of Arizona, the Sangre de Christo Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, along with the peaks and valleys that comprise Northwestern Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon.



Another sub-species in the M. gallopavo group is the Gould’s Turkey. This species of turkey is mainly found in Mexico, and is the likely ancestor of today’s domesticated turkey, who were brought to Europe (after being domesticated by the native inhabitants of Meso-America) by the Spanish in the 16th century, before crisscrossing Europe as a farm fowl, wherein it eventually reached England, whose inhabitants brought the turkey with them to the New World in the 17th century. It is in the New World that the legend of the turkey really takes wing (insert chuckle here) with reports of the 1st Thanksgiving occurring around 1620. While we could go into the details of the history of Thanksgiving, that would make this newsletter drier than Arizona boot leather. While it is good to talk of full bellies and satisfying food comas, for Wildlife Professionals, thoughts of the wild turkey should also include thoughts about the turkeys themselves, along with their prevalence around airports.


In southern New York State, in April, 2013 a Piper 42 was taking off from Edwin A Link Field when the aircraft struck a Wild Turkey with the aircrafts right propeller, causing significant damage to the prop to the tune of $90,000 and 10 days of service. Jumping across the continent and rolling back 8 years, a Beechcraft 400 was on its landing roll when the plane struck 20 turkeys, damaging the landing gear and one wing, while also necessitating the replacement of an entire engine and the pitot tube, causing the aircraft to need 4 days and $76,000 for repairs. Going back another 3 years, a CRJ 200 was taking off from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. when the aircraft struck Wild Turkeys (at least 2), with one bird smashing through the windshield, and another hitting the fuselage before being ingested. This strike came at a very high cost, with 2 weeks and $200,000 needed to facilitate the repairs. Luckily, in all 3 cases there was no human injury or loss of life, although on the bright side, turkeys can be seen as a matter of job security for aircraft maintenance personnel.



As a reported strike, Wild Turkeys are an uncommonly struck species, with a paper co-authored by the USDA-APHIS and the FAA (Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990-2001) citing that between the title years of the document, 54 Wild Turkeys were struck by aircraft, with 16 of those reported strikes (or 29.6%) resulting in damage to the aircraft and 14 strikes (25.9%) resulting in a Negative Effect on Flight. When adding up the figures, these numbers place the Wild Turkey in the 14th slot of the list denoting the top 102 most hazardous bird species to aviation, well below the numbers 1 and 5 slots owned by the wild cousins of Bob Cratchits Christmas goose (but that is for another story/newsletter).
Wildlife Professionals can be proactive with turkeys around an airfield, keeping their eyes peeled for areas that turkeys like to frequent, such as wood edges and tall grasslands near the perimeter fences where the wild ‘fowl will like to forage on fresh grasses and insects, while also being afforded the opportunity to make a quick run or flight back into the timber should the need arise. In the winter, turkeys in the northern states will also form “super flocks” which can number in the hundreds given a proper food supply. The arrival of these flocks can be either a blessing or a curse for an airport, especially if that airport should find itself in cold farm country, where turkeys gain the reputation of artic feathery pirates as they pillage and plunder food stores around the farmstead, such as in the concrete silage bunks found at many a north country farm or searching and scratching in the harvested fields for any waste grains that may have been left behind.
As the nation settles into their seats this Holiday season and prepares to feast on this delectable fowl, we as Wildlife Professionals should take an extra second to think about these large birds of the mountains and valleys, and how we can keep the airports clear of turkeys, much in the same manner of how we will clear our plates on the November 23rd. And now that we have had those thoughts, please pass the gravy…