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Wildlife Lookout

Wildlife Lookout: Weird Facts About the Wild Turkey

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Turkeys have long been associated with a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but how much else do we know about them? Here are some interesting and little-known facts about turkeys.

Turkeys are large birds native to the Americas in the genus Meleagris. This genus is split into two species: the wild turkey of northern, central, and eastern North America with six sub-species, and the ocellated turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula. The turkey species can be traced back over 20 million years on the North American continent.

Aztecs first domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey, the south Mexican wild turkey, sometime in the early Classic Period (c. AD 200–1000). Spaniards brought these tamed birds back with them in the mid 16th century, where they quickly gained popularity throughout Europe. The original pilgrims actually brought these domesticated birds back to North America, unaware that their larger cousins were already here.

From America, not Constantinople

Historians are unsure how this American bird ended up being called turkey. One theory is that at the time this fowl was being popularized in international trade, shipments to Britain were coming through the Levant and the bird became associated with Turkey. Another theory suggested the wild turkey was confused for a similar guinea fowl that was introduced to Britain by Turkish merchants.

The turkey is the heaviest member in the order Galliformes, which includes domesticated and wild landfowl. Wild turkey males will range from 10 – 25 pounds, with some reaching 30 pounds or more. This gives them the second heaviest maximum weight of birds native to North America, after the trumpeter swan. Still, these large birds are excellent fliers, unlike their domesticated cousins. Wild turkeys can run up to 25 mph and can fly as fast as 55 mph.

Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarrenWild Turkey

All the Weird Names

Anatomical structures on the head and throat of a domestic turkey. 1. Caruncles, 2. Snood, 3. Wattle (dewlap), 4. Major caruncle, 5. Beard
DrChrissy –  P041111 12.08.jpg

Male turkeys are called “gobblers” for their unique call, used to defend territories and call to females (called “hens”). The head of a turkey is very complex, made up of loose, elastic bare skin. The four distinct parts of its head and neck are: the “caruncles” on top its head and neck, the “snood” hanging off its beak, its “wattle” or dewlap hanging from the neck and the major caruncle along the lower neck. The plumes on the males’ chest are called a beard. Male turkeys are also called “toms”, and male juveniles are sometimes called “jakes”. The male mating ritual, which includes gobbling, fanning feathers, drumming and spitting, is often called “strutting”.

The male turkeys’ head changes color based on its mood. When he is excited, his head turns blue or even white. When he is aggressive it turns red. The loose skin around his head and neck will fill with blood and expand when he is alarmed. Body feathers of both males and females begin black and gray with a copper and brown sheen. The color of the male turkey becomes more complex as it ages, picking up metallic green and blue hues.

Gobble Gobble!

Gobblers gobble mostly to attract females, and to alert other males of their presence. These birds can produce a drumming sound by the movement of air sacks in its chest. Similarly, a spitting sound can be made by a sharp expulsion of air from these sacks. Females also gobble, but sparingly. The gobble of a wild turkey can be heard up to a mile away.

Ben Franklin Weighs In – Turkey Vs Bald Eagle

A common mythos surrounding the wild turkey is that Benjamin Franklin had suggested it for the national bird, over the bald eagle. Although he never publicly denounced the symbolic use of the bald eagle, a strongly voice letter to his daughter Sarah Bache dated January 26, 1784 had this to say on the matter:

“Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. 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 [osprey]; 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 in 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.”

Learn more about turkeys:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-turkeys-665520/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_(bird)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_turkey
https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics

Flora of Covington

Flora of Covington: the Pecan Tree, a Southern Tradition

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by Chelsea Cochrane

Pecan tree orchard with autumn leaves

The pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) is a species of hickory native to the Mississippi River region and into northern Mexico. These majestic trees can grow 100 – 140 feet tall and can live as long as 300 years. Many old and young trees can be spotted in the Covington area, some remnants of the vast pecan groves and orchards that once speckled the South.

Its not an event without mini pecan pies!

Pecans are certainly a staple of southern living, a necessity in several baking recipes and an all-around healthy snack. Texas named the pecan the state’s official “health nut”, as well as the state tree, and pecan pie the state’s official pie. They’re a little nuts about pecans, but they’re not the only ones – the pecan is also the state nut of Arkansas and Alabama, and one of California’s four state nuts (don’t even talk to them about nuts). There’s a reason everyone loves pecans – besides being delicious, they’re good for you too, benefiting blood cholesterol levels, rich in vitamins, and containing high levels of antioxidants.

To see what all the hype is about, you’ll have to understand that pecans once played a large role in southern economics, and are still a major trade today. The only edible major tree nut native to North America, its use can be traced back to 16th century Native American cultivation and trade. The name “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “pacane” meaning “nuts requiring a stone to crack”. Pecans became a large part of Native culture and were even used as a form of currency for a time.

Pecans are among the most recently domesticated major crops, first cultivated commercially in the 1840’s here in Louisiana. A black slave by the name of Antoine at the Oak Alley Plantation was the first to successfully graft a wild cultivar, creating an improved variety for propagation and thus budding the pecan industry. Pecans quickly grew in popularity and spread across the nation, from coast to coast and as far east as New York. To this day the US is still the largest producer of pecans, boasting 300 million pounds per year.

From the USDA: “Almonds and pecans are the major tree nut crops produced in the United States, followed by pistachios and walnuts. More than 98 percent of the acreage in almonds, pistachios, and walnuts is found in California. Seventy-four percent of the pecan tree acreage is in three states — Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. The pecan acreage includes both native and improved tree varieties. The 2007 Census of Agriculture shows there are 1.86 million acres of tree nuts in the United States.”

from the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture

Pecans aren’t actually nuts

Still green “fruit” of the pecan tree

Not to burst anyone’s bubble (especially Texas) but the pecan is not actually a nut. Often classified in the somewhat indistinct realm of “edible nuts”, pecans join pistachios, cashews, almonds and walnuts in the also hazy “drupe” or stone fruit classification. This distinction is made because unlike true nuts that contain both the fruit and the seed of the plant, drupes are fruit containing a hard-shelled seed within. Apricots, peaches, plums and cherries are also examples of drupes, just ones where we eat the fruit rather than the seed! The lines between classifying drupes and berries gets a little fuzzier, and has caused some arguments and long-standing grudges in the scientific community. Isn’t botany fun?

Pecans in Covington

Pecans can adapt to a variety of environments but thrive in full sun, warmer climates and sandy well-drained soil, making the Mississippi and adjoining rivers an ideal habitat. The Port of New Orleans became the main exporter of these southern-loving trees, whose soft wood also gained popularity in fine furniture making and in cooking, as a flavor enhancer for smoked meats like other types of hickory. Pecan orchards and maintained groves began popping up everywhere in the south.

Many older Covington natives can remember large groves of pecans along the river and around Claiborne Hill. The Alexius family owned a track of land on Three Rivers Road dubbed “Alexiusville” that was home to vast pecan groves as well. If you look around downtown you will find some magnificent older trees that are still producing. You may even have one in your backyard!

Caring for your Pecan Tree

If you are lucky enough to have one of these big beauties then you know one tree can provide an incredible amount of fruit. Pecans are slow to produce, often taking 10 – 15 years to mature from seedling. A single pecan tree in its 10th growing season can produce 50 lbs, while a more mature tree into its 15th season or more can drop over 100 lbs of pecans! Most of these will be eaten by squirrels however, if you aren’t quick.

Many variety are alternate-bearing, meaning that they will produce heavily one year and then very little the next year, or in some cases next several years. This can be helped sometimes with extra fertilizing. Trees will deplete much more nutrients on heavy-bearing years and need time to catch back up. Zinc is a common additive to help pecans produce a strong harvest.

photo by Carol M Highsmith of Texas pecan farmer

Learn more about pecans at the National Pecan Shellers Association’s website ilovepecans.org!