Roosting (not Roasting) Turkeys Take Flight

Roosting (not Roasting) Turkeys Take Flight

On a cool evening recently, I stepped outside to enjoy twilight. The fireplace was lit, dinner eaten, and I took a moment to enjoy the slow descent of nightfall in autumn.

As I stood taking in the beautiful evening, I heard the unmistakable short gobble of a wild turkey just below the hill. I watched as one, then two, then a third turkey, each in fine, fat health, made their way out of the darkening wood to the open hillside just east of the old barn. I stood motionless as they made their way up the hill, stopping mid-way to glance back to the woods from where they had come. The forest starts right at the edge of the hill and is mostly tall trees, including a single red pine and a few spindly white pines about 60 feet tall.

From what I could see, the turkeys were 1-year-old males, known as jakes with telltale beards hanging from their chests. The lead turkey (also the plumpest of the trio), walked further up the incline towards the barn, then pivoted to run down the hill as if on an airport runway. It launched into the air towards the trees and with powerful breast and wing muscles ascended at a 45-degree angle up and toward one of the tall pines. With a sudden shift of wings and midair brake to a dead stop, it alighted onto one of the thick branches hugging the center of the tree. Through the tangle of sticks and needles I could make out its dark form in the evergreen boughs.

Not to be outdone, the second turkey repeated the same flight pattern, walking up the incline then turning to run down the hill to take flight to the top branches of another nearby pine tree. As if on cue the third turkey followed, this time landing in the tree where the first bird had already settled down.

I knew turkeys roosted in trees for the night, but this was the first time I had witnessed their flight to the dark safety of a tree. Being so far up in a tree will keep predators, like coyotes at bay, and may even deter a bobcat or fisher. Their use of the inclined runway to gain enough speed for a short burst of wings, at such a steep angle to the safety of the treetops was a first for me. I would have missed it if I had stayed by the fireplace and not ventured outside. Wild turkeys are amazing birds, strong, powerful, wily and cagy. They may be tasty prey, but they sure have evolved with a keen instinct to survive.

The three turkeys looked healthy and plump from a summer and fall of feeding on insects, grubs, nuts, seeds and grasses. Winter is coming, and I’ll see their tracks in the snow as they search fields and woods for food. My guess is one of these males will the king of the hill come spring when mating season arrives. I hope to see them strut across the field, tail feathers in a fan of attention-grabbing glory, faces red and blue in amorous intentions.

I have seen these three males all spring and summer. They are probably from last year’s flock that occupied the woods and fields surrounding the hill. My guess is the hens and this year’s poults are probably out there somewhere, too. Perhaps I’ll see them in the morning making their rounds. I hope they too are roosting for the evening, high in the upper branches of an old white pine, out of the wind and safe for the night.

This week I’ll be out again looking for a turkey, but not a roosting wild turkey, rather the “roasting” domestic farm-raised bird.

Thanksgiving is Thursday, and a day for breaking bread with the people we care about. We gather to give thanks with a bountiful meal of traditional foods handed down through the generations. No matter what old family recipe for bread stuffing, gravy with giblets, pumpkin pie or fresh cranberry sauce, the centerpiece of the meal will always be turkey. I did some research on why turkey is the prominent Thanksgiving dish (and for some folks Christmas as well). Here is what I found.

It is assumed that turkey was served at the meal commonly referred to as the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag people in 1621. Turkeys were native to the region, but more likely the meat provided by the Wampanoag was deer, with the Pilgrims providing wild fowl which could have been turkeys, but also ducks or geese.

In fact, there is little information about this meal from the Pilgrims, and it didn’t appear to be a momentous celebration. The only mention of it is in a letter written by Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow. Giving thanks for the fall harvest finds it roots in European harvest festivals and Christian religious observances. A “day of thanksgiving” was common among the colonists of New England.

So how did turkey become the popular meat for the Thanksgiving holiday? The probable reasons are that the bird is large, can feed many people and was plentiful in New England at the time. They were raised on family farms for their meat, whereas cows and chickens were raised for their milk and eggs as well as meat. When a large meal was to be prepared, a single turkey was an easy source of fresh meat for the dinner plate. That tradition has continued for centuries, perhaps aided by the relative affordability of turkey, making it even more important for feeding many people. I know what I’ll be cooking this Thursday. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without roast turkey.

As I eat, I might just be wondering where the wild turkeys will be roosting for the night and remember witnessing three jakes run downhill to gain speed for a high-altitude flight to safety. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor full of amazing animals like the wild turkey. I hope you’ll join me, and together, let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Information on the tradition of Thanksgiving turkey was gleaned from the Encyclopedia Britannica website. It can be found at

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at for by calling 860-774-3300.

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.


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