Wild Turkeys, as American as Red, White, and Blue

With four Eastern wild turkeys constantly roaming the fields around my house this year, naturally some questions came to mind. Do turkey “families” stay together? In an anthropomorphic sense, what’s their family life like? How do you tell a female from a male? What do they do when they’re not feasting on insects and seeds in the fields?

A wild turkey “family” takes a break on a pile of deadwood near Goldsboro, Maryland. Photo by Chris Knauss

According to Matthew Miller (2017), director of science communications for the Nature Conservancy, “basically, turkeys of a feather flock together.” Miller says hen turkeys congregate in flocks consisting of females and their offspring. Male turkeys form their own flocks, although young males (jakes) stay with their mother through the fall. With that many eyes looking about, there’s safety in numbers, especially considering the wild turkey’s exceptional eyesight. Since their eyes are on the side of their heads, by turning their heads slightly, they have a 360-degree field of vision (Miller, 2018). If you see some turkeys, they probably also see you.

While turkeys can see well during the day, just like us they can’t see all that well at night. To find a safe place away from ground predators during the dark hours, they fly into the lower limbs of trees at sundown and will move upward until they find a suitable spot to rest for the night. If you scare them during the day, sometimes they’ll take flight, but usually they’ll just scamper away on the ground.

Turkeys not only gobble (mostly males in the spring), they also squabble a lot. While they may look like easy-going birds, when they’re flocked together they’re also in the process of establishing dominance. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys have overlapping home ranges, not territories (NWTF, n.d.) The distinction is that a territory is a defended area while a home range is the area that an individual uses for its normal activities, such as food gathering, resting, mating, and caring for young (Potts & Lewis, 2014). Flock life is full of quarrels, dominance displays, and some fighting as well, all part of the process of establishing a pecking order, which eventually helps determine breeding privileges in the spring.

Turkeys can be habitual, especially in the fall, and the foursome I’ve observed seem to follow a regular feeding path. They pickup bugs and seeds from the ground with quick, keen head bobs, all the while remaining vigilant to the threat of predators. Most of the time they’re eating and foraging. Sometimes they take a break from eating to take advantage of some bare dirt under a red cedar tree where they dust themselves to maintain their plumage. The dusting tends to be a flock activity (NWTF, n.d.). Turkeys are omnivores. They seem to really enjoy the many crickets in our fields. They also eat grasshoppers, spiders, snails, salamanders, and slugs. All that protein helps them grow rapidly after their birth in late May and early June. The three offspring in the group I see are already nearly full size.

According to The Cornell Lab (n.d.), in the fall, winter, and early spring, turkeys will also scratch the forest floor to find acorns from oak trees. They also feast upon other seeds and berries, such as American beech nuts, hickory nuts, and wild black cherries. Like most birds, they ingest grit to help digest food.

To the untrained eye, a turkey’s gender can be difficult to determine. Adults are definitely more distinctive with the males rather easily recognized by their larger size, reddish head, red throat and wattles, and more colorful feathers with iridescent red, green, copper, bronze, and gold sheens. Differentiating jakes and hens takes more intent observation. A couple of defining characteristics for jakes are a small spur on each leg (less than ½ inch) and a short beard (about two to three inches). The beard is a mass of fibrous bristles hanging from the breast plumage. The beard of adult males can reach as long as 10 inches. Unlike hens and gobblers, the central tail feathers of jakes often extend two to three inches above the rest of their fan.

It’s no secret that Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Franklin wrote: “For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and 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” (McMillan, n.d.).

There’s no question that the bald eagle is a majestic bird, but I’m with Mr. Franklin on that opinion. The swing point for me: Gobbler heads are colored with variations of red, white, and blue.

Chris Knauss is a Maryland Master Naturalist who teaches communication at Wilmington University. He resides near Goldsboro, Maryland.


McMillan, J. (n.d.). The Arms of the United States: Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey. Retrieved from http://www.americanheraldry.org/pages/index.php?n=MMM.Turkey.

Miller, M. (2017). The Fascinating Fall Behavior of Wild Turkeys. Retrieved from https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/11/21/the-fascinating-fall-behavior-of-wild-turkeys/

Miller, J. (2018). Wild Turkeys. Retrieved from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/reports/Wildlife%20Damage%20Management%20Technical%20Series/Wild-Turkeys-WDM-Technical-Series.pdf

NWTF. (n.d.) Wild turkey behavior. Retrieved from https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/behavior

Potts, J. R., & Lewis, M. A. (2014). How do animal territories form and change? Lessons from 20 years of mechanistic modelling. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 281(1784), 20140231. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0231

The Cornell Lab. All About Birds. (n.d.) Wild Turkey, Life History. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/lifehistory

Et tu, Betula?

Even before we lived on the Eastern Shore, Rick and I came over to the Adkins plant sales. On one such visit, Rick bought me a thick book: Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn. I was flattered, and maybe a bit confused, that he thought I was scholarly enough to enjoy such a book. That book and I have been staring each other down across the space behind my desk ever since. Finally, this spring, I started browsing through it. Over the years, I had memorized a few botanic names of plants without much thought to the meaning of the names. It was just a way to show off. Maybe now it was time to actually learn something, and I have this informative book. I did entertain myself, learning a few sensible words and confusing myself with a few others. Then Jenny said we could try writing something for volunteer credit during this down year. So, here is my attempt to share some of the reasons behind the names of a few of our favorite native plants.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with an easy one. Physocarpus opulifolius: ninebark. Easy because all the parts are descriptive of something we can observe. And, it’s fun to say. Physo means bladder-like. Carpus is fruit, opuli means maple-like, and folius is leaved. I’m no taxonomist, but it seems like there are many plants with bladder-like fruits. Why this particular genus got the nod, I don’t know. In any case, learning this name made me more attentive to the features of my ninebarks. The common name ninebark is more obvious, especially in winter when the interesting bark stands out. Ninebark is a wonderful shrub that seems to thrive on neglect.

Photo by Kathy Thornton

Impatiens capensis: jewelweed. Impatiens means impatient and refers to the way the ripe seedpods burst if they are touched. I learned from a recent episode of Mary Roach’s “A Way to Garden” podcast that jewelweeds living close together germinate synchronously in spring. They thus outcompete other plants, and because there are more seedlings than nutrients, only the most fit survive. If you are intrigued by the notion of plants signaling each other, I recommend this TED talk by Suzanne Simard. Capensis means “of the cape,” in this case the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Nicolaas Meerburgh, an 18th-century Dutch mathematician and botanist, got naming rights, and he thought jewelweed was from there. As you know, a plant’s genus can change at the drop of a nucleic acid’s hat. But the species name stays forever. The lesson here is, if you are ever so fortunate as to discover a new species, put great care into selecting the name. Which leads me to one more tangent before I move on. A recently discovered super-cute pacific octopus was named Opisthoteuthis adorabilis. Awwww!

Photo by David J. Stang. Wikimedia Commons.

Muhlenbergia capillaris: hairawn muhlygrass. The Muhlenbergia genus honors 18th-century American clergyman and botanist Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg. While stalking grasses, he also discovered the bog turtle, which, I just learned from a Woodland Wildlife Wednesday webinar, is not doing well in Maryland. This is an example of genus renaming. Lamarck named it (the grass, not the turtle) Stipa capillaris. That got corrected in the early 19th century without the aid of gene sequencers. Capillaris means hairlike. Indeed, there are mornings when my hair looks exactly like that.

Liriodendron tulipifera: American tulip tree. Locally famous as the logo for Adkins Arboretum. Lirio is from Greek leirium, for lily. Dendron is Greek for tree. Tulip is obvious, although with a tall, mature tree, you may have to wait until the flowers fall off to see them. The suffix -fer means bearing. Hence, Liriodendron tulipifera means tulip-bearing lily tree. Pretty straightforward, although the lily-ness escapes me. I thought lilies have bulbs and parallel veins. Maybe the lily name is symbolic; maybe Linnaeus just envisioned a lily there. You can learn much more about Liriodendron tulipifera from Sylvan Kaufman’s excellent video.

Liriodendron tulipifera. Photo by Kellen McCluskey.

Quercus alba: white oak. Quercus is derived from the ancient proto-Indo-European word perkwu, which meant oak. The age of its name is, in itself, awesome, imparting even more dignity to the tree. If you have ever shopped for white paint, you know there are a few hundred (I may be exaggerating) shades. There are almost as many options for botanical white. Stearn describes 37 choices, plus variations, from niveus (snow-white) as the purest white, to cretaceous (chalk-white) for dull white, to dealbatus (whitened) to mean slightly covered with white upon a darker ground. Albus, our white oak white, is dead white. But why white when it looks gray? And there are at least as many words for various shades of gray, my favorite being elbidus, meaning “saddest gray.” Evidently, white refers to the seasoned wood, which tends toward white and is paler than other oak woods. Oaks are Doug Tallamy’s favorite trees. In his books, he explains that oaks are one of our keystone species, delivering more ecosystem services than any other tree genus. If you want to plant a tree, consider an oak.

Photo by Adamantios. Wikimedia Commons.

Happy gardening!

by Sue Hauser
Adkins Volunteer

Nature Notes—Box Turtles

We’ve had a recent slew of birthdays in our family, and my five-year-old is now six. Her fascination with the animal world continues despite her advancing age, as do her endless questions. The most recent, “Can box turtles swim?” required some research and resulted in fascinating facts. 

Box turtle. Photos by Jenny Houghton.

Unlike those of their aquatic counterparts, the bodies of box turtles lack adaptations for life in the water. Circular rather than streamlined and without webbed toes, the box turtle’s strong suit is not stellar swimming. Nevertheless, box turtles can and do swim, either to escape predators or to cool off on a hot summer’s day. You may occasionally see them sitting in a puddle or dabbling along the edges of a small pond. You will not find them in deep water, where their lack of swimming finesse would leave them…in deep water. 

My daughter and I see the same box turtle each day on our nature walks. This is not surprising, as box turtles have a limited home range of no more than 750 feet in diameter. Thanks to my Master Naturalist training, the question “Is our box turtle a boy or a girl?” was answered without the need for research by a quick check to his plastron, or lower shell. Male box turtles have a concave plastron for easier mating. (Luckily, this fact did not elicit further questions.) Males usually also have bright red eyes, while the eyes of females are a duller brown. 

Eastern Box Turtles are among the most common reptiles to be spotted in Maryland and are not considered endangered in any state but Maine. Some states, however, do list the species as being of special concern. Not known for their speed, box turtles suffer greatly from traffic accidents. Habitat loss is also putting some at risk. 

Should you find a box turtle on your next nature walk, please leave it in place unless it’s in the middle of the road or similarly endangered. In that case, move the turtle to the nearest safe spot and wash your hands: some turtles carry salmonella. Above all, do not make a pet of your newly rescued friend! Box turtles generally live 25-35 years but in some cases have been known to live over 100 years. That’s quite a commitment, and an awful lot of birthdays, for even the most devoted animal lover

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director

White Squirrel Sighted in Easton!

Having moved to Easton at the end of March (note to self: don’t move your household during a pandemic), I was excited to put up my bird feeders and see how the birds differed from those at my previous, very rural location in Denton. Up went the feeders—one in an ancient flowering crab tree, one in an enormous spruce that happens to be right outside my office window.  Bring on the feathered friends!

Okay, a week later, I understood why none of our neighbors had bird feeders out—oh, sure, there were a few blackbirds around, but mostly what I had was squirrels.  Big squirrels, little squirrels, healthy-coated squirrels, rat-tail squirrels—up to half a dozen at and below each of my three feeders most of the day. 

We spent some time figuring out how to at least reduce the numbers of squirrels that could access the seed, but we still became somewhat resigned to being squirrel-watchers instead of bird-watchers. And then, early one morning in mid-June, we noticed a bright white interloper among the fuzzy grays—wow, what on Earth is that??

After taking a few pictures, I ran inside to learn more about white squirrels—I knew it wasn’t an albino because there was some pigmentation and the eyes did not have that distinctive red-rimming of albinism.  I had not heard about “morphs,” as the squirrel folks refer to it. Apparently, there are quite a few variations in color that show up in our traditional eastern gray squirrels. Click here for some examples.

We saw the white squirrel again later that day but haven’t had a visit since.  Here’s another picture that captures his/her beautiful white tail.

For those of you local, we live near the YMCA and close to Idlewild Park. . . perhaps others have seen this white squirrel?

Below is map of sightings in the United States created by researcher Rob Nelson and Roland Kays, a zoologist at North Carolina State University. You can help them keep track of white squirrel populations by logging your sightings

I hope to have the chance to see this squirrel again!

by Beth Lawton, Maryland Master Naturalist

Additional Resources

Here’s a few more links for you to explore:

Have You Ever Seen a White Squirrel? (May 2020) – a lovely blog from Laura Moss at Treehugger.com – includes a succinct explanation of the difference between leucism and albinism.

Demystifying the Illusive White Squirrel (April 2019) – includes some great pictures of different morphs.

Ever Seen a White Squirrel? Meet the Guy Who’s Keeping Tabs on Them, Nationwide (April 2019)

Notes on Ticks

If you’re a naturalist on the Eastern Shore, encountering ticks is inevitable. Since moving here from a more urban area, I’ve learned the importance of daily tick checks, especially in warm weather. Adkins Arboretum, like any healthy, naturalized habitat, has its fair share of these pesky arachnids. Dog ticks, black-legged ticks, and Texas Lone Star ticks thrive in thickets, leaf litter, and grassy areas. Each of these species can transmit diseases. 

Luckily, there are ways to enjoy nature and avoid bringing ticks home with you. Repellents, both chemical and natural, can be helpful. Staying on the path, keeping canine friends at your side, wearing closed-toed shoes, and tucking your pants into your socks are also good defensive measures. Above all, check…and check again. 

“Why ticks?” many of us wonder. “What good are they?” As it turns out, ticks have many environmental benefits. According to Land Steward Kathy Thornton, ticks “benefit the moist, dark ecosystems in which they live by serving as a food source for many reptiles, birds, and amphibians. They also help control wild animal populations. Scientists even use them as an indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health and stability.” 

Healthy ecosystems have built-in control mechanisms to keep the spread of pathogens in check. Studies show that high animal diversity is key to limiting tick-borne disease. The presence of red foxes has a negative correlation with the incidence of Lyme disease, most likely because foxes feed on white-footed mice, which are carriers of Lyme bacterium. Opossums can eat up to 4,000 ticks a week, and guineafowl, though not native, likewise consume massive quantities of ticks. 

Ticks have been on Earth since the Cretaceous period, 145-66 million years ago. Given their long history, it’s unlikely they’ll be going away anytime soon. We might not like them, but we can learn to accept them. Because the alternative–not venturing into nature at all–poses an even greater risk to our physical and mental health.

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director