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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Restoring childhood play… and Philly’s first nature preschool

Gail Farmer, Director of Education

I was born in 1975, part of Generation X, probably the last generation whose parents felt comfortable sending their kids out into the neighborhood after school.  “Go outside and be back by dinner,” was a common directive from my mother.   My street ran along the bottom of an undeveloped hill, and “The Hill” was where my sisters and I went when my mom sent us outdoors.  My childhood was also filled with Girl Scouts, dance classes and community soccer, but my best memories and my most formative experiences come from the times my mother wanted nothing more than to get me and my sisters out of her hair for a few hours.

preschool hikeUnlike more structured activities, The Hill was totally open to our interpretation and needs:  it was a place where we could try to make sense of the complex world in which we lived by reconstructing it on a much smaller scale.  The Hill had scary places (“the swamp”) and refuges (“rainbow rock”).  On The Hill we were sometimes brave explorers discovering new lands and other times victims in need of rescue.   The Hill was whatever we needed it to be.

A growing body of research in early childhood development is revealing the critical connection between this type of exposure to nature and the developing brain.  Children who spend immersive time in nature (not just outdoors on the basketball court or playground, but in nature), tend to be less anxious and better able to focus, and to have fewer health issues and more emotional resilience, than children who don’t.  (Learn more at http://www.childrenandnature.org/documents/C118/.) The challenge in our increasingly urban environment is: how do we provide very young children with the kind of immersive exposure to nature they really need?

The Schuylkill Center is keenly aware of this challenge, and already offers opportunities for nature play in many of its programs.  Now we are adding another path for children in the critical early years of development: we are opening a “nature preschool.”

The Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool will provide Philadelphia children with regular opportunities for direct contact with nature, on a daily basis and across the seasons—in a risk-managed environment.  Our classroom will open directly into our nature preserve, so students can jump into forests, streams, ponds and meadows.  They will grow and plant trees, rear tadpoles, catch butterflies, and generally just be outdoors in all seasons.

Although our preschool is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, there are more than a dozen nature preschools across the country, and we are modeling our program on the best practices of those schools.

For more on Nature Preschools, visit: http://www.greenheartsinc.org/Nature_Preschools.htmlGreen Hearts founding director, Ken Finch, will be at the Schulkill Center January 10, 2013 to present the 2nd annual Dick James Lecture: Go Outside & Play! Restoring the Nature of Childhood.  If you’re in the area, come check it out!

Tallamy Tabbed to Give the Inaugural Dick James Lecture

The Schuylkill Center’s founding director

Founding director. Outstanding teacher. Sharp wit.  Leader.  Acclaimed meteorologist. Radio and TV personality.  Give Dick his due: he was a force to be reckoned with for decades.

To honor his accomplishments and reconnect to his legacy, the Schuylkill Center happily announces the establishment of the annual Richard L. James lecture. This year’s inaugural edition will be held Thursday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral Village auditorium.

Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and author of the remarkable “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” provides a visually compelling slide show of his astonishing research on the critical role native plants play in sustaining ecological communities, even in urban and suburban landscapes.  After listening to Tallamy, you’ll radically change your home gardening plans.

“In looking for a speaker of Dick’s stature,” said new director Mike Weilbacher, who worked for Dick here at SCEE in the 1980s, “all of us on staff immediately thought of Doug Tallamy: a great speaker on an incredibly important topic, the preservation of local biological diversity.”

Karin James, Dick’s widow, and Andy, his son and longtime land manager, will attend the lecture, Andy offering opening remarks about his dad.

Native plants guru Doug Tallamy

Whether you’d like to reconnect to our legacy or learn some great new information, this event is for you. The Dick James lecture is free for members, only $10/seat for non-members. Cathedral Village is located on Ridge Avenue in Andorra at the intersection of East Cathedral Road.  Please park in the St. Mary’s Church parking lot alongside Cathedral Village.

And RSVP by calling the center at 215-482-7300, ext. 110, or registering online.

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

 

Welcome to Our Blog!

Hello friends of nature and conservation!

Welcome to the brand new blog for The Schuylkill Center. Here we hope to educate, entertain and inform you with posts about environmental science, our local ‘green’ community here in Philadelphia, eco-art, workshop opportunities, and more!

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In the meantime, stay up to date with us on our website (www.schuylkillcenter.org).

-The Schuylkill Center Staff