Yes, I know that the song is called “Turkey in the Straw,” but in this case I am talking about multiple turkeys in a field of new corn. These turkeys were not “of the straw” type, but wild birds strutting their stuff among the short corn sprouts. I spotted them east of M-30 while on the way to West Branch. The day was overcast, the birds were far away, and the air was damp with spittle rain. Viewing conditions were less than ideal but, on the other hand, one does not get the chance to watch strutting wild toms everyday. Turkeys are an everyday bird, but courting turkeys are an exclusive feature of spring. The “strut” is not an everyday thing.
I must admit, the scene was a picture of new life and fertility – a rolling field of fresh growing corn, with parading testosterone soaked birds, and (cover your ears little ones) mating. Yes, mating out there is the wide open spaces visible to all who cared to watch. I, the voyeur in this scenario, stopped to watch.
This flock of amorous birds consisted of two or three Toms and a half dozen hens. Although I’m sure all of the toms desired attention, only one was actually getting it. It was not hard to pick out the dominant gobbler (appropriately called the alpha male) in this group. His magnificent tail fan and huge circular form made the secondary gobbler look, well, secondary….even tertiary. The secondary’s tail fan was less than adequate (uneven feather length etc.) and he wisely kept his teenage features subdued as the silverback stalked about (see below).
The whole courtship procedure is a study in stereo-typed behavior. Not only is the dominant male obliged to enact a series of “fixed action patterns” starting with gobbling and leading into strutting and treading, but the hen’s reaction is also guided by strict instinct. The whole dance is well choreographed and is more like a ballet than a toe-tapping barn dance in the straw.
There would have been a lot of gobbling leading up to this affair, although from my observation post I would not have heard it even if I was there an hour or two earlier. Gobbling brings in the females, and other males as well, to the party grounds. With the females (and over-awed youthful males) gathered in the center, the Tom strutted his stuff around the perimeter. He did his level best to look like a Thanksgiving centerpiece. Tail flared, wings spread, and primaries dragging on the ground, Big Tom repeatedly commenced a slow arcing route around the bunch. There would have been some low frequency rumble sounds issuing from the tom during this dance, but that part of the performance was gobbled up by the distance between us (did I just make another bad pun?).
The dominant bird did this repeatedly, without variance, until one of the hens finally accepted his advances. Soon she dropped to the ground (swooned?) and allowed him to step on top of her. He then tread upon her like a wine-maker in a vat of grapes until she volunteered to turn her privates up to meet his (see below). This treading behavior can go in for some time – in this case for at least 3 or 4 minutes – before achieving the desired effect. Then, boom, it was over and the male went back to courting the remaining hens who shamelessly showed great interest. What a turkey, eh?
I took a video of the sequence (you can watch the video here), but don’t expect graphic detail or anything approaching lust. You’ll see the strutting and then what looks like a large turkey standing on a small hill amongst the corn. That hill, of course, is the female and you can barely see her head sticking out if you look carefully.
It was getting late in the season for such shenanigans. Most breeding should have taken place much earlier in the springtime and it often begins on the wintering grounds. I can only guess that the cold wet spring might have dampened avian enthusiasm just like it stunted the growing enthusiasm of the local corn. This hot bunch of turkeys were doing what they could to make up for lost time.