Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Thursday, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food.  And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.turkey

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors.  Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff.  That’s not how turkeys appear in November.  Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males.  During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner.  To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together.  They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females.  The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love.  And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving.  But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places.  You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like Pennypack up in Huntingdon Valley.

Oh, one more turkey story. If you do go to somewhere like Pennypack searching for turkeys, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, with the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana.  While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future.  Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys.  Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters.  Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relic populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat.  Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat.  As their habitat returned, so did they.  Today, turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back.

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Naturalist Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

 

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A Silent Fall: Vanishing Monarchs

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A Monarch dries its wings after emerging from its chrysalis in our front garden. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

The new fall season brings a chain of wonderful events: trees turning color, birds migrating south, goldenrod fields bursting in bloom. But one of my favorite fall phenomena is sadly and strangely absent this year.

There are almost no Monarch butterflies afoot these days.  All summer, I’ve seen only three at the Schuylkill Center.  And my compatriots at other centers like Bowman’s Hill in New Hope and Peace Valley in Doylestown report the same horrific drop.

You know Monarchs, those large orange and black butterflies. Every fall, every Monarch east of the Rocky Mountains begins an extraordinary migration south, one of the strangest in the animal kingdom.  All Monarchs, whether hatching here in Roxborough or up in Nova Scotia, fly slowly to a couple of small, secluded mountain valleys not far from Mexico City.  Somehow encoded in the  pinhead-sized brains of these creatures is a road map to Mexican forests.  (West Coast Monarchs, by contrast, head downslope to multiple small locations along the Pacific coast.)

Arriving in Mexico around All Soul’s Day—folk tradition there says these are the returning souls of Aztec warriors—the butterflies cluster in large groups, clinging to each other, coating fir trees with their bodies.  Nicknamed the Methuselah generation because they live for many months, this group stays in their mountain cluster until the spring.  Then they fly north again, search for  the first growths of milkweed plants, (the host plant for their caterpillars), lay their eggs on the milkweed, and die of exhaustion.

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Graphic by Journey North

When the next generation matures, it pushes north again—and Monarchs ultimately arrive back in Philadelphia in early summer.  Only to head back to Mexico two months later.

Last winter was the worst year on record for the size of the Monarch cluster—their group covered only three acres of forest, down 59% from the previous year, and down 94% from their 1994 high.  Think about it: most of North America’s Monarchs clinging to only three acres of trees.

So the drop this year was expected.  But it does have biologists wondering about the possibility of losing this utterly unique phenomenon.  And all eyes will be on Mexico this year to see how many butterflies return to their winter home.

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A Monarch chrysalis hangs from a milkweed stem. (Schuylkill Center, 2013)

Why the drop?  Scientists expect many culprits, but highest on the list is the use of Roundup-ready crops through much of the Midwest.  Grown to be immune to this herbicide, the plants allow farmers to pour the chemical on fields for weed control, and take out all the milkweed that once supported populations of Monarchs.  Pennsylvania’s Monarchs can’t get through the Farm Belt, so few arrive to reproduce here; few in turn migrate back.

At the Schuylkill Center, we’ll watch the butterfly carefully, plant lots of milkweed to support the creature, and report back to you information as researchers discover it.  We can’t afford to lose this high-flying beauty from our fields.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Learn more at:

“Bring Back the Monarchs,” Monarch Watch: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/campaign/the-details

“Tracking the Causes of Sharp  Decline of the Monarch Butterfly,” Yale Environment 360: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/tracking_the_causes_of_sharp__decline_of_the_monarch_butterfly/2634/

US Forest Service, Celebrating Wildflowers: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/monarchbutterfly/migration/

A ‘Grate’ Day: Steel & The Schuylkill Center

Last week, I got to do something few people are given the opportunity to do. I got to see the guts of a steel plant up close and personal! Our friends at ArcelorMittal provided us with a  guided tour of the international corporation’s Conshohocken facility – just down river from our own organization. I was there with two similarly giddy co-workers, our Director of Land & Facilities and his Assistant, to pick up a custom machined well cover from the plant’s fabrication shop.

What in the world, you ask, does ArcelorMittal and the international steel industry have to do with the Schuylkill Center? As it turns out, an awful lot!

ArcelorMittal has been a recent, loyal donor of ours. As part of its commitment to supporting conservation and environmental education in operating communities like Conshohocken, it has donated over $12,000 in grants to us in the last two years. What’s more: local employees at the plant have also contributed their time at volunteer Land Restoration events, which they’ve attended with their children and grandchildren!

Last week, ArcelorMittal responded to our need for a cover for an old, 19thcentury well on our property in just a day’s time! (For those unfamiliar, we have lots of reminders of the land’s early history still peppering the woods. Some are old wells, some are the ruins of barns, buildings, and pump houses designed to bring water up to farms that used to dot Ridge Road. (That’s right!)) Yesterday, we were able to safely cover the well through a generous in-kind contribution orchestrated by Ian Mair, the plant’s Environmental Manager, and Lee, a Fabricator who made the grate.

Lee explains how he fabricated the well cover.

During our tour of the plant, on the way to pick up the well cover, we toured the cavernous buildings that make up America’s largest supplier of steel plate to our military, and the biggest steel producer on the globe. Hard-hatted and be-safety-spectacled, we saw raw steel from ArcelorMittal’s nearby Coatesville facility heat forged, cooled from over a thousand degrees by water on massive conveyors that appeared to be football fields long:

Red Hot Steel

Here’s a photo of the water evaporating from the surface of the steel:

Water cools Steel Plate heated to over 1,000 degrees.

 We also saw the inspection floor, where the steel is painted for use by the military and industry, and the yard where steel coil is set to cool for three days after being tempered. In a word: it was awesome.

The visit made me realize, like most relationship-building moments, why our mission is so important to our stakeholders like ArcelorMittal – and why it’s vital to support Environmental Education in general.

On our field trip, I learned not just about the unique material properties of steel (sometimes it’s magnetized, sometimes it’s not), but also about the ways that the plant uses and works to save energy, as well as precious water. Like many other corporations, ArcelorMittal works to model sustainable practices in a resource-intensive, but also necessary, industry. Water used in the process of making steel undergoes a rigorous purification and filtration process that exceeds industry requirements and re-uses the resource. The steel sludge filtered from water used in the tempering process is an asphalt extender.

Utilizing natural resources with minimal environmental impact is both necessary and challenging. And the ability to do both is predicated on a student’s ability to first grasp basic scientific concepts – the kind we begin to touch upon when we discuss water ecology at the Schuylkill Center, for example. We happen to undertake those investigations in unimpaired streams that feed the Schuylkill River – the same big blue ribbon of water that ArcelorMittal calls home.

The employees at ArcelorMittal understand this. It’s why they choose to support our work. We’re connected through philanthropy, but also through an understanding that it takes exposure to new ideas and experiences in nature to put a child on the path of caring for the environment – or a career in a STEM field that also works to protect the environment. They value the resource we protect: the largest remaining privately owned open space in Philadelphia.

If you or someone you know wants to make a difference, come visit us! We’ve got a couple of ways you could help. We won’t be able to show you how steel is made, but we can show you the end product sitting on top of our historic stone well – and we’ve got some young minds we’re intent on forging, too.

A very special thanks to our friends at ArcelorMittal!

Mike, Ian, Sean, and Joanne stand safely atop the well.

Warmly,

Emily, Director of Resource Development