Thump, Chirp, Thump—Gobble

by Cheryl Shank | Feb 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Ocellated Turkey strutting
Ocellated Turkey. Photo CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Several high-pitched chirps with accompanying low “thumps” split the gray light of the early Mexican morning. They soon blended into a series of pulsations reminiscent of those of a drumming Ruffed Grouse. They clearly originated, however, with a voice box rather than wings beating the air. The bird culminated the strange vocal performance with a noise sounding rather like a half-choked “gobble.” But certainly, this was not the typical turkey gobble. Rather, it was as though the turkey had tried to talk through a half-blocked windpipe.

For this was a turkey, an Ocellated Turkey. A hen turkey flew down from her roost tree and began clucking in a manner similar to that of the Wild Turkey hen. Again, the gobbler’s peculiar gobble rang through the field and nearby woods. As he sang the first woodpecker-like chirps, he stretched his neck higher and higher. Then, on the “gobble,” he snapped his head back down. It certainly appeared as if the sound were choked in his throat.

The light was getting brighter. There was the sound of feathers beating the air, and the gobbler took his place beside the hen. He closely resembled her, with slightly showier plumage. Both resembled the Wild Turkey in basic patterning, but they were far more colorful. With their iridescent plumage and their grayish tail feathers tipped with bronze and ornamented with black-edged blue “eyes,” or ocelli, they somewhat resembled a pair of peafowl. In fact, Ocellated Turkeys were once considered a species of peafowl.

The turkeys’ heads and necks, however, looked very unlike those of either Wild Turkey or peafowl. Crimson encircled their eyes. Cerulean skin provided a colorful backdrop for red to yellow nodules polka-dotting their necks and heads. Atop the male’s head was a horn with the same colorful, warty appearance of the rest of his head. This was the main difference between him and the hen feeding beside him.

Other differences included his larger size and two-inch-long spurs. He prized his pair of pointy spurs, a good half-inch longer than the average tom’s. Unlike the Wild Turkey toms, he had no beard.

It was early February and the beginning of the two-month-long breeding season. The gobbler’s head coloration was growing more vivid, and the knob on his crown more inflated. He spread his tail and began excitedly strutting around the female bird, vibrating one of his dragging wings now and then. The display resembled that of the Wild Turkey, but with an interesting difference. The gobbler’s head and neck were thrown backwards across his back, so that he appeared to be staring intently at the sky. Every so often, he would gobble, throwing his head higher and higher into the air until the “gobble,” when with a snap he would lay his head back in its awkward position. Perhaps this display would suitably impress the hen.

As the sun approached the horizon, the turkeys started feeding toward the forest. Other turkeys in the nearby fields were doing the same. In the safety of the woods, they would forage on bugs and vegetation until dusk began to fall. Then they would once again fly up into the branches to roost overnight.

In the misty morning light of early June, nine day-old poults stirred. The Ocellated Turkey hen scanned the thicket for predators. Her nest, built on the ground, had been well concealed, but today the poults would leave the nest.

Satisfied with her surroundings, the hen softly clucked to her poults. In perfect obedience, the poults skittered behind her as she led them into a patch of tall grass. They all watched, salivating, as the mother picked a beetle from a grass blade and swallowed it. She took a few steps and sampled a seedhead. One poult chirped hungrily, to which the hen replied with a rather impatient cluck. Getting the point, the poults began scattering to find their own breakfasts.

A shadow leisurely flitted across the grasses. Unperturbed, the poults continued to feed. The hen, however, looked up and uttered a loud putt, scattering the turkeys into the brush. But the Double-toothed Kite had already dived. When he flew off a minute later, he grasped a fresh turkey dinner in his talons.

Among the remaining turkeys, all was not peace and safety. Another poult had encountered a margay in his dash for safety. The cat had been watching, plotting, for some time, but he certainly had not anticipated such an easy meal. As he began his breakfast, squawks and flapping echoed from the flock, fleeing to distant regions of the woods.

In the dusky February dawn, a chirping, drumming, choking “gobble” pierced the air. This time, another gobble answered—a distinctly less mature gobble. A hen clucked, and the young turkey gobbled again. Indignantly, the mature tom let loose with a rich vocal performance that eloquently conveyed all his opinions about the pecking order. The hen clucked again, with almost a slight chuckle.

The light was getting brighter. There was the sound of feathers beating the air, and the gobbler alighted beside his hen.

Ocellated Turkey
Ocellated Turkey. Photo © John Friesen.

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