A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ice is Nice ... When It's Safe

Enjoy the ice, for God's sake! But make sure it's safe.
A few tips for staying safe on the ice

Depending on what the weather throws at us, late-fall/early-winter can be some of the best weeks to enjoy the ice.

In a lucky year, a week or so of snowless arctic cold can set up perfect ice-skating conditions.  It’s happened a few times in recent memory—when the ice is like a sheet of glass and you can slap a puck clear across the pond. Even better when you can see through the ice, fish and all.And all winter long, the ice can be great for ice-fishing, skiing, snowshoeing and all sorts of other fun things.

But fun on the ice comes with responsibility to make sure you’re safe on the ice. So, here are a few tips:

  • Be patient/be safe. Wait for cold temps and safe ice thicknesses to set up before you venture out.
  • Assume all ice is unsafe until you determine that it is safe. So, be prepared to check the ice thickness using an ice chisel or an auger.
  • Check the thickness in several places and continue to check the farther you get from the shoreline. Remember that ice doesn’t form in uniform thickness across a water body. Currents from inlets, outlets, springs and channels can limit ice buildup. So, while the ice can be a foot thick across most of a pond, it could be a deadly 1 inch thick near an inlet.
  • Ice conditions change constantly over the course of a winter. Warm spells can create slush, which then re-freezes and becomes weak. Heavy snow can create a layer of slush between the ice and snow, which can also make ice conditions weak and unpredictable.
  • Beware of the ice near shorelines. Warmth from the shoreline can weaken or thaw ice on the edges, making it tricky to get off or on the ice.
  • Watch out for tricky spots, like honeycombed, clear or squishy ice. These could be weak spots.
  • Smaller ponds tend to set up sooner than rivers and large lakes, where currents and waves can keep ice from forming.
  • Avoid gathering in large groups on the ice, especially in early winter.
  • Don’t drive trucks or cars on the ice. The consequences can be humiliating and expensive, if not deadly.
  • Don’t panic if you do fall through the ice. According to the N.H. Fish and Game Department, you should move back to where you fell in, where you know the ice was solid. Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and kick hard to climb back on. When you get back on the ice, roll away from the hole until you reach solid ice.  A pair of ice picks can save your life. Make them or buy them and keep them handy.
  • Rules of thumb: According to the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research Laboratory in Hanover, here are a few rules of thumb for safe ice: You should have at least 6 inches of hard ice for individual foot travel and 8 to 10 inches of hard ice for snowmobile or ATV.
A number of folks I know are skittish about the ice for one reason or another. Some have heard ice make those thunderous and wondrous cracking noises and assumed that sound means the ice is unsafe. Often, though, those are the sounds of ice thickening up, cracking as it expands. 

Once the ice sets up and you’ve determined it’s safe, get out there and enjoy it! 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shorter Days - Longer Nights

Late-October dusk drapes a Hancock field.
It Ain’t All Bad

You notice it every day this time of year: The days are getting shorter; nights are getting longer.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, we’ll have 10 hours and 39 minutes of daylight today and a few minutes less each day until December 21. The Winter Solstice -- the shortest day of the year, as they say -- gives us a meager 9 hours and 5 minutes of daylight.

That’s when the Earth starts to tilt back the other way, giving us a few more precious moments of light each day. But that’s still another two months away. ‘Til then, we prepare for whatever winter might bring us and adjust to the darkness.

Some folks hate this time of year because of the declining light. My wife complains that she leaves the house when the sun is coming up, and returns from work when the sun is going down. Nary a few minutes to enjoy the outdoors without a headlamp.

I suspect we all get a touch of the winter blues. But some people -- happy and healthy during the warm seasons -- seem to really suffer with seasonal affective disorder. A former colleague of mine illuminated her office with a special lamp recommended by her doctor. She did this in late fall and winter and said it seemed to help brighten her mood.

Aside from using such lamps or moving to warmer, brighter climes, there’s little we can do to stop the dark swing of Autumn. But in the spirit of positive thinking, we can acknowledge a few good things about these longer nights.

1. We’ve got it easy.
For millions of years, humanity has spent nights in the dark or by fire. You didn’t have much of a choice. Ultimately, our nights were lit by hearths, then candles and lamps and lanterns. We didn’t have the luxury of flipping a switch for light until the advent of electricity. Even TVs and computers and phones light our space now. Really. It makes me wonder if we’ve forgotten what darkness is.

2. A Signal for Nature
The onset of longer nights is one of nature’s many signals that things need to happen. Deer and moose enter the rut. Leaves begin to fall. Birds fly south. Berries ripen. Bears fatten up for the winter. The list goes on. While the longer nights aren’t the only factor for these changes, it’s a part of the mix.

3. Get More Sleep
Enjoy that extra darkness as a gift of more sleep. Turn off the TV and go to bed early for a few months. You may find that extra sleep refreshing.

4. Darkness is Healthy
A few more hours of darkness might make you healthier. Scientists have learned that our bodies can produce the hormone melatonin only when it’s really dark. And we need melatonin for all sorts of reasons, including its ability to fight diseases.

5. Go Night-Hiking.
Defy the dark by enjoying it. Get a headlamp and go for a night hike. Since it’s dark early, it doesn’t have to be a late night adventure. I occasionally go night-hiking with friends on Friday nights. It’s fun, especially in the late fall when there are no bugs and there’s a comfortable chill in the air.

6. Discover the Night Sky
It’s amazing how the stars pop out on those crisp Autumn’s nights. Now you can discover those constellations at a reasonable hour. Use a telescope, a pair of binoculars or just your own eyes. Check the almanac for nights when you’re likely to see a meteor shower. You might even see northern lights!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Everything Rots

Even rot-loving fungus decomposes.
A quiz about decomposition

Not to sound like Debbie Downer, but let’s face it: Without death, there is no life. It’s the cycle of life.
And as that cycle goes round, the process of rot starts right after death.
Fall is a great time to celebrate rot. Leaves are falling. Vegetation is dying back. And the cycle of life is in full, glorious swing.
With that in mind, here’s a little quiz about rot.

1. The carpet of dried leaves, twigs and other plant debris on the forest floor is called the:
a. recycling layer.
b. leaf litter.
c. spread.
d. canopy.

2. The process where dead vegetation, animals and scat are converted from complex carbohydrates and proteins to basic atoms is called:
a. fission.
b. recycling.
c. decomposition.
d. recomposition.

3. Before rotting vegetation becomes soil, it goes through a transition stage known as:
a. humus - with one m.
b. hummus - with two m’s.
c. leaf litter.
d. photosynthesis.

4. Microscopic organisms that decompose organic matter include:
a. slime molds.
b. mycorrhizal fungi
c. mites and wood lice.
d. bacteria and protozoans.

5. One of the forest’s hard-working decomposers are called hyphae. These are:
a. tiny insects that eat dead plants and animals from the inside out.
b. worms that eat dead vegetation.
c. long strands of fungi.
d. mushrooms that sprout up in moist woods.

6. What rots faster?
a. skunk carcass.
b. maple leaf.
c. Twinkie.
d. oak log.

7. Consuming 80 to 90 percent of the energy in fallen debris are:
a. flies and maggots.
b. snails and slugs.
c. fungi and bacteria.
d. mice and moles.

The rotten answers:

1. b, leaf litter. This is where the recycling begins. Probe just a few leaf layers down and you see leaves riddled with holes by insects and mites, fungi and bacteria.

2. d, decomposition, though it is a form of natural recycling.

3. a. humus with one m. Hummus with two m’s is a Middle Eastern food spread. And there are two types of humus (one m): “mor,” which is seen in forests with thick litter layers, and “mull,” which is usually in forests with few conifers and has soils of low acidity.

4. d. bacteria and protozoans.

5. c, long strands of fungi that grow on or into their food sources, including leaves and other vegetation, carcasses, logs, scat … you name it. Just under the forest’s layer of leaves is a whole network of hyphae, called a mycelium. These networks are the main body of a fungus and may live for decades or longer. 

6. a, a skunk carcass, or most animals in general, because of their low ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Carbon represents the hard to decompose stuff, like cellulose, while nitrogen represents the easier to digest stuff, like proteins. An animal carcass is pretty easy to decompose and has a carbon/nitrogen ratio of about 3:1. By comparison, sugar maple has a carbon/nitrogen ratio of about 52:1. It can take years for a leaf to decompose. The Twinkie: Urban legend holds that they have a shelf life of decades, but folks who’ve studied rotting Twinkies (not me!) say they actually last about 25 days. So, if your answer was “Twinkie,” we’ll give it to you! 

7. c, fungi and bacteria. The rest of the plant and animal material, along with the fungi and bacteria themselves, form the food base for animals in the soil.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Rhythm of the Trail

Summers are Short, Life is Sweet: Time to Hike the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway

By Eric Aldrich

Starting our hike on the MS Greenway in Dublin.
Like a shooting star flying through the night sky, summer comes and goes.
It’s the same way with kids. They grow up so fast.
With that in mind, I knew back in May that I needed to plan a summer adventure with my 10 year-old son, Ian. We wanted it to be outdoors, multi-day and challenging. A backpacking trip would be the perfect adventure.
We first considered a hut-to-hut trip in New Hampshire’s Presidentials, and even planned a few options for a two- or three-night journey.
Then we quickly settled on something nearby and familiar like an old friend: the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail. I had hiked the trail many times before -- in sections and through-hikes -- but not for a few years. So, not only would this be a good place for our adventure, it would also be a nice chance to get reacquainted and introduce the Greenway to the next generation.
We started planning. We picked up the new edition of the Greenway Trail Guide and pored over the maps.
The Greenway is a fabulous local treasure, running 50 miles between the summits of Mount Monadnock to Mount Sunapee. Along the way it climbs many hills, passes old stone walls and cellar holes, ponds, streams and one-time pastures, now loaded with blueberry bushes.
It generally follows the high ground between the Connecticut River watershed on the west and the Merrimack River watershed on the east. This divide is pretty well-defined on Mount Sunapee’s long, rocky spine, where you can straddle the two watersheds with both feet.

A Greenway Vision

The trail was first suggested in 1919 by Allen Chamberlain, then president of the Appalachian Mountain Club. By 1921, the trail was laid out by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which saw it as a way to build public support for conserving not only the two book-end peaks, but also a corridor between them.
Back then, the landscape was full of open meadows and active pastures and farms. While some of the trail followed old roads, other stretches went through these pastures with landowners’ approval.
After World War II, the trail fell into disrepair and its path faded into the woods. By 1974, however, the Forest Society saw the public’s growing interest in backpacking and revived the trail with the help of the AMC. Much of the trail follows this 1974 route, passing through state parks, state forests, lands owned by conservation organizations and many private lands -- some conserved and some not.
The key to keeping the trail on these private lands is ensuring hikers follow a few simple rules, like having no fires, camping in designated sites and being courteous to landowners and other hikers.
Aside from landowners, the trail’s true heroes are the hardworking volunteers of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail Club. They clear blowdowns, install waterbars and bridges and maintain the trail in many ways. They also produce the handy trail guide.

Four Nights and Five Senses

    While you can through-hike the Greenway in four days or so, my son and I faced the constraints of busy work, school and camp schedules. So we did it in four sections, spending four nights on the trail (shelters and tent platforms) and hiking the Lovewell Mountain stretch in Washington as a day-hike. We started by heading north from Mount Monadnock on Father’s Day weekend and wrapped up the Mount Sunapee end on August 1, hot, sweaty and satisfied.
    It was a journey for the senses. We savored strawberries on our first day and gobbled blueberries near the end on Sunapee’s ridge. We enjoyed chicken terriyaki, scrambled eggs and even ice-cream sandwiches, all thanks to freeze-dried technology and Eastern Mountain Sports!
    We heard vireos, warblers, babbling brooks, crickets and wind whistling through the pines.
    We touched smooth beeches scratched by black bears and splashed our sweaty faces with cool brook water.
    We smelled lichens roasting on the rocks, spruce-fir forests and instant coffee in the morning.
    And we saw old graveyards, beaver dams, distant windmills in Lempster, coyote scat, friends in Nelson and my old school in Washington.

Have an Adventure

    This is just one father/son summer adventure. There’ll be more backpacking trips, more trails and more seasons … but it’s funny how time flies.
    Seems like yesterday my hiking partner was riding on my back in a baby carrier. And there were times when summers seemed to last forever. Kids grow up. Lives get busy. Knees go bad. And summer fades into fall. All of which is fine. It’s the rhythm of life, the rhythm of the trail.
    So pick a trail, any trail -- no matter how old your kids are, no matter the season -- and go out and share it with them. Life is sweet, like a mouthful of blueberries. Have an adventure. Hit the trail and have fun.

For more information about the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail, visit

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Celebrating a 50-Year Milestone for Conservation

Nubanusit Lake’s “island” was a nest egg for future success

By Eric Aldrich

Fifty years ago, a group of far-sighted Hancock and Nelson folks got together and did something truly remarkable for the times: They protected an important piece of land.
Nowadays, stories about protecting a tract here or there are pretty common. The region’s land trusts successfully raise money and protect a few tracts every year in a variety of ways.

But in 1961 it was rare. And thanks to the hard work of residents, the then-nascent Nature Conservancy and many others, they not only protected an amazing place, they started a land ethic for the region that continues today.

The place they protected is well-known and much-loved to many in the Monadnock Region: the so-called “island” in Nubanusit Lake.

Nubanusit State Park?

Louis Cabot Preserve, between Nubanusit Lake and
Spoonwood Pond.
This 400-acre tract jutting into the heart of Nuby’s crystal-clear waters isn’t technically an island. It connects to Nelson’s “mainland” by two thin strands of land, between which lies Spoonwood Pond, the undeveloped pond at the foot of Osgood Hill. Sweet, beautiful places, for sure.

And that’s what Richard Bennink thought more than 50 years ago when the future of this place was uncertain. While some stories can fade from memory, the 94-year-old Bennink remembers it like it was yesterday. At the time, Bennink was a banker working in Boston, enjoying summer weekends on Nubanusit Lake just like he did in his youth on his aunt’s farm.

In 1957, the island’s owner, Dr. L. Cabot Briggs, had grown tired of paying the taxes and wanted to sell. At the time, the N.H. Legislature was considering purchasing the island as a new state park. The notion of snack bars and a campground on the island divided lake residents. But by 1959, the Legislature spiked the idea, turning its attention instead to what would become Greenfield State Park.

The day after the Legislature’s decision, Bennink and his friend and fellow lakefront camp-owner George Ripley convinced Briggs to hold off on selling the land to developers while they tried another way to protect the land. They called top officials at The Nature Conservancy, which at the time was a tiny 9-year-old land trust.

After a visit by the Conservancy’s unpaid president, Dr. Richard Goodwin, the organization approved the project and the fundraising effort kicked into high gear. They produced a pamphlet, describing the unique opportunity to protect this land. Bennink bought a 9 hp motor for his boat and took potential supporters on tours of the place.

The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire

Word about the campaign to save the Nubanusit island even reached the Boston Sunday Herald: “Nature Conservancy will keep the island in its unspoiled state. There will never be an automobile road on the 400 acres, never a gasoline station, never a `gift shoppe’ or a messy yard cluttered with alleged antiques. It will be maintained as a woodland sanctuary – inviolate, peaceful.”

As checks came in, Bennink, Ripley and their committee filed paperwork to found “The Nature Conservancy of New Hampshire” and by the spring of 1961 raised enough money to purchase the northern half of the island.
Enjoying the view of Louis Cabot Preserve
from Spoonwood Pond.

After convincing Briggs for another reprieve, the local fundraisers continued their push, appealing to summer residents, year-rounders and many others who enjoyed Nubanusit Lake’s active social scene. In consultation with Briggs, they decided that the island would be called the Louis Cabot Preserve, in honor of Briggs’ grandfather, a Civil War veteran who had originally bought the land from various past-owners. They cleared trails, posted welcome signs and appointed deputy fire wardens in Nelson and Hancock.

In July 1963, The Nature Conservancy conducted a detailed biological survey, documenting plant and wildlife species that occurred on the island. Students from Keene State College also began studying the island’s flora and fauna.

Celebrating a Double Milestone

By March 1964, they secured a Conservancy loan and raised enough money to purchase the island’s southern half. Finally, the entire island was protected and owned by The Nature Conservancy. In 1967, the Conservancy gave the land to Keene State College with deed restrictions protecting its natural assets. Keene State is still the owner.

Briggs’ daughter, Eleanor Briggs, founded the Harris Center for Conservation Education in 1970, just down the road from Nubanusit Lake. Within years, there, the Harris Center and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests started a land-protection effort in Hancock, Nelson and surrounding areas that continues today. Their work would soon be joined by the Monadnock Conservancy, town conservation commissions and others. Mount Skatutakee, Thumb Mountain, Robb Reservoir and the Faulkner family’s Andorra Forest in Stoddard are now among the 29,600 acres protected throughout the Monadnock highlands.

It’s been 50 years since the double milestone in 1961: establishment of The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire and protection of the first Nubanusit tract. Since then, The Nature Conservancy has helped protect more than 270,000 acres across the state and is working to restore critical habitats like the Ossipee Pine Barrens and Great Bay.

And next month the Nubanusit milestone is the subject of a celebration at the Harris Center. The event on August 27 is The Nature Conservancy’s 50th anniversary and annual meeting.

In addition to the meeting, the Conservancy plans a paddle-and-hike field trip to the island, among other field trips.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Five Fascinating Facts about Fireflies

While bugs can take the fun out of summer, there’s one insect that everyone loves: the firefly.

The firefly or lightning bug restores the kid in all of us. You just want to get up close to one; maybe capture it for a moment in your cupped hands and peek inside to see the flashing green glow. Then you let it go. You know it won’t sting. It won’t bite. And its light doesn’t burn.

But what is this fascinating little creature?

1)     The firefly is actually not a fly. And it’s not a bug. It’s a beetle. These soft-bodied beetles usually have a head hidden under a shield, called a thoracic shield. They’re in the family of Lampyridae, or “glow worm.” There are about 20 species of fireflies in New Hampshire.

2)      That term, glow worm, really applies to the larvae, which live underground in the winter. While all known firefly larvae glow to one extent or another, not all of the adults glow. For larvae, glowing seems to be a message to would-be predators: “Don’t eat me! I’m toxic!” Chemicals in the larvae are indeed poisonous or distasteful to insects and other predators. Larvae themselves are predators of earthworms and larvae of other insects.

3)      In adults, fireflies’ capacity for “bioluminescence” is a different story. When you see fireflies this time of year, it’s usually in an open area, like a field, marsh, or lawn. And it’s usually a male, like the species Photinus pyralis, making its glowing J-shaped flight pattern. His flashing bursts are messages to the female: “I’m here! Look at me. Where are you?” The female, meanwhile, is usually hunkered down on the ground, with a much more subtle glow: “Psst! I’m over here, silly! Come on over.” 

4)      Some firefly species really put on a show for the ladies. In big groups, they synchronize their flashes, like amorous fireworks displays. On river banks of Malaysian jungles, one species synchronizes its flashes with choreographed precision, by the thousands. Must be quite a sight. Another species performs this synchronized glowing dance in the Great Smoky Mountains in early June. 

5)      Their glow comes from a chemical reaction produced in special organs in the lower abdomen. The process involves magnesium, oxygen and the light-emitting compound luciferin. It’s a cold light, producing no heat at all. A form of luciferin produced in the lab is used in medicine and genetics research for detecting magnesium and other properties. Even the U.S. military is interested in the bioluminescence of fireflies. Among the possible uses are creating landing zones for helicopters and identification markers to distinguish friendly soldiers and weapons from enemy.

You can learn more about the fireflies in your neighborhood by observing them. Follow an individual firefly and keep track of its Morse-code-like flashing pattern. You can also use a flashlight to trick fireflies. Put the flashlight low to the ground and turn it on and off quickly, just a little. Watch the male fireflies approach!

If you capture fireflies and put them in a jar, be sure to poke some holes in the lid so they can breathe. You can find several different species over the course of the summer. Be sure to let them go!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Book Shows the Nature of New Hampshire

If you want to make sense of the woods and waters where you roam, it’s nice to have a naturalist right there to explain it.

Well, you can’t always have a naturalist handy, but a new book comes pretty close to filling that role. The Nature of New Hampshire: Natural Communities of the Granite State is like a field guide to the state’s great outdoors, explaining why places look the way they do and what kinds of ecosystems they are.

Handsomely illustrated with drawings and photographs, the book is written by Dan Sperduto and Ben Kimball and produced by the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau with help from The Nature Conservancy and New Hampshire’s conservation license plate, the moose plate.

It is the job of the N.H. Natural Heritage Bureau to understand the state’s natural communities. Sperduto, Kimball and other skilled botanists at the bureau have toured every corner of the state since the bureau was established in the mid-1980s, gathering data about the state’s rare and common plants and natural communities.

In the process, they have meticulously identified nearly 200 different types of natural communities that occur throughout New Hampshire. These natural communities are well-defined, based on the types of plants found there, the area’s structure (like a marsh or a shrubland), and the combination of conditions found there.

If you’re not used to the names of these natural communities, they may seem a bit wonky at first. But there’s a good reason for the names. For example, the natural community “black gum – red maple basin swamp” is found in a basin swamp with abundant black gum and red maple. This natural community happens to be uncommon and important to conserve. Black gums are among the longest-living hardwood trees in North America.

The black gum – red maple basin swamp is distinctly different than the red maple – sphagnum basin swamp, which is common and is dominated by red maple, with scatterings of hemlock and sometimes red spruce.

The book is organized by major landscape types in New Hampshire: Alpine and subalpine, rocky ground, forests, peatlands, swamps, marshes, river channels and floodplains and the seacoast. Within each landscape type, the authors describe the kinds of natural communities found there.

For instance, New Hampshire’s premier alpine environment is high in the Presidential Range, where you can find 12 square miles of alpine tundra. The book identifies several distinct natural communities found there. You might see the “alpine heath snowbank” community, which is well-drained areas under late-melting snowpacks. It features Labrador tea, crowberries and alpine bearberry, among others.

The authors show examples of the types of plants found in these communities, what the places look like and where you can find them. For example Mount Monadnock is a good place to see the “subalpine rocky bald” or the “red spruce – heath – cinquefoil rocky ridge” communities.

They have checklists of the types of plants found in various natural communities, and very clear line drawings that show cross-sections and overhead. All help to understand how these places work and why certain plants grow there.

This book will make you want to get out and learn more, see some of New Hampshire’s cool places, like the Ossipee pine barrens, the intertidal rocky shores in Rye or the boreal forests in the North Country. The more we understand these special places, the more likely we are to conserve them.

The Nature of New Hampshire is available for $29.95 in bookstores and by the University Press of New England.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

10 Wild Things about Wild Turkeys

Gobblin’, spittin’ and struttin’ – it’s a spring thing
By Eric Aldrich
Spend a morning in our forests this time of year and you’re bound to hear that crazy sound: a male wild turkey gobbling his head off.
There’s a lot going on with all that gobbling. There’s action. There’s color. There’s drama with other male turkeys. And there’s – dare I say it – sexual tension!
To honor the species that Benjamin Franklin thought would be a respectable emblem of our country, here are a few cool things about the wild turkey.

1. The Comeback Kid: The wild turkey is the poster child for successful wildlife restoration. Populations of this North American native were nearly wiped out because of habitat destruction and unregulated commercial hunting. They were completely gone from New Hampshire 150 years ago. Things began to turn around in 1937 with the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which enabled state wildlife agencies to use federal funds to restore and manage the game birds. Those funds come from an excise tax hunters’ purchase of firearms and ammunition. After initial fits and starts, the restoration started succeeding in the 1950s, with the advent of the cannon net. The N.H. Fish and Game Department’s first successful restoration project began in 1975 with the introduction of wild turkeys in the Connecticut River valley. Now biologists estimate there are more than 25,000 wild turkeys in New Hampshire and 7 million throughout North America.

2. Subspecies: There are five distinct subspecies of the North American wild turkey:
  • The Eastern, that’s what we have and it’s the most widely distributed, found all across the eastern half of the country. It’s also the biggest of the subspecies; it can weigh over 30 pounds, but normally weighs between 16 and 24 pounds.
  • Osceola (or Florida) turkey, which is found, oddly enough, in Florida.
  • Merriam’s turkey, found in the Rocky Mountains and Western prairie states.
  • Gould’s, found throughout the central Mexico and southern New Mexico and Arizona.
  • Rio, which ranges through Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas.
3. Cool names: Males are gobblers or toms. Females are hens. Juvenile (year-old) males are called jakes; juvenile females are jennies. The little chicks are called poults. Together, they’re a flock.

4. Limited flight: If you’ve ever surprised a flock or a single bird, you know they can fly, but not very far. They can fly from one end of a field to the other, but are more comfortable flying into the limbs of a nearby pine.  They can run about 20 mph.

5. A Tom’s Harem: While lots of species in the bird world stick with their mate for life, not wild turkeys. They’re polygamous. In winter, wild turkeys tend to stick together in pretty large flocks. By spring mating season, they often divide into groups of hens, jakes and gobblers. One gobbler usually emerges as the dominant male to do most of the breeding with the hens. This alpha turkey, if you will, is often the biggest gobbler.

6. Spittin’ and Struttin’: The mating season inspires all sorts of action for the toms. To get the attention of a hen, that gobbler will strut his stuff by puffing up and spreading out his wings, scraping the tips on the ground. He’ll spit, cluck, hum and gobble. Even their heads will burst with vivid red, white and blue. That’s a determined male!

7. Beards and Spurs: Males also have what other birds don’t: a beard. Four to 10 inches long, these beards emerging from the breast are sort of a modified feather, stiff to the touch. Gobblers also have a spur on the back of their legs, presumably for fighting other males. 

8. Keen eyesight: Not sure if it’s a myth or an exaggeration, but I’ve heard it said that a turkey can see a man blink 100 yards away in the woods. Anyone who’s hunted wild turkeys can attest at least some truth to that. Because of that eyesight, a turkey hunter must wear camouflage and be very still.

9. Omnivorous: Wild turkeys have a varied diet of seeds, grasses, nuts (including acorns), berries, roots and insects. They’ll even eat snakes. To support their need for protein and rapid growth, poults will consume mostly bugs, including moths and larvae.

10. Game Bird: Now that they’re successfully restored, wild turkeys are also a model for sustainable hunting. By the time the spring season arrives (May 3 to 31 in New Hampshire), toms have mated with many hens, who have laid ground clutches of 8 to 15 eggs each. New Hampshire allows a licensed hunter to take one male in the spring (if the hunter’s skilled and lucky). With those limitations, turkey numbers remain sustainable with ongoing management by the Fish and Game Department. The hunt itself is fun and challenging, coming at a great time to be outside.

To learn more about wild turkeys, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.