Sit back and relax: A rafter of turkeys

Digital Originals

YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — Even big rafters start small.

During the early summer, a lone hen turkey wandered around our neighborhood. We wondered a lot about why it was alone, since turkeys prefer to travel in groups.

Then, after a few weeks as a loner, she showed up in the company of a male (tom) turkey.

And just a few weeks after that, they showed up with six babies-poults, if you’re talking turkey. At first the poults were just little round balls of feathers. Then they shed their juvenile plumage, and fledged out into miniature versions of their parents. (Two of them never wander into camera range during the video, but they are there.)

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They’re not so miniature now. In fact, they are almost as big as mom and dad. Given all the predators in the area (foxes, dogs, cats, hawks, owls, humans) and other dangers (cars and trucks), the fact mom and dad were able to rear all of their poults to adulthood is no small accomplishment. They have themselves a rafter of turkeys to be proud of.

So why is a group of turkeys called a “rafter”? Some say that it’s derived from the word “raft” in its meaning as “a large collection” of something. Others say it’s because when early European settlers in America started building houses and barns, turkeys would perch in the rafters of the unfinished buildings. This is actually not that farfetched an explanation; at night, wild turkeys will perch in trees to avoid ground predators. A building rafter would just be a bigger, better perch. Perhaps someone, somewhere saw an opportunity for a little wordplay.

The turkeys rarely stop moving. Most of the time they walk slowly and deliberately, carefully surveying the area for choice morsels. They are omnivorous and opportunistic. If they decide it’s food, they’ll eat it-insects, berries, nuts, fruit, grasses, even the occasional small animal. As you can see in the video, they also take advantage of the bird seed smaller birds knock out of the feeder. (In the process they do an exemplary job of dethatching the lawn.) Don’t let their default gait fool you, though-if they feel the need, they can run up to 25 miles per hour. You do not want to be chased by an irate turkey.

Wild turkeys can also fly. They’ve been clocked at up to 55 miles per hour when airborne. Because of their size, though, most flights are fairly short. (Domestic turkeys are bred to have more meat on them-much more meat-which makes them too heavy to take off.)

Wild turkeys have been known to survive up to thirteen years, but their usual lifespan is three to five years. How long will the newborn poults survive? We have no way of knowing. But at least partly because of our bird feeder, their first few months have gone very well.

(If you can’t remember the word rafter, just call them a flock. Most people do anyway.)

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