Catch up with the latest news at LRZ with articles, press releases, and other fun updates

written and created by Zoo Staff.

The Turkey Tale

Thanksgiving is coming soon.  For many, one of the stars of the holiday is the turkey.  But what do we really know about these birds? 

There are six subspecies of wild turkey, all native to North America.  The new-world turkey was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century.  At that time, storks, herons, and bustards were often on the menu, so the meaty, succulent turkey became very popular.  The turkey encountered by the pilgrims was the eastern wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris. These birds are sometimes called the forest turkey and are the most numerous of all the turkey subspecies.  By the early 1900s, the wild turkey had been hunted nearly to extinction.  But thanks to conservation programs across North America, their numbers are now over six million.

Benjamin Franklin praised the turkey as “a bird of courage” and “a true original native of America.”  He expressed a preference for the turkey over the bald eagle in a letter to his daughter, calling the turkey a “much more respectable bird.”

Female turkeys are called “hens,” while male turkeys are often called “toms.”  Males are also called “gobblers.”  Both male and female turkeys make a variety of different sounds, including “purrs,” “yelps,” and “kee-kees.”  Male turkeys are the only ones who make the well-known “gobble” call.  They reserve this vocalization for mating season.

A group of related male turkeys may band together to court females, though only one member of the group gets to mate.  When the hen is ready to lay eggs, she’ll lay approximately one egg a day until she has a clutch of nine to thirteen eggs.  She then incubates the eggs for about 28 days.  The baby turkeys, called poults, will eat berries, seeds, and insects.  Adults, on the other hand, have a more varied diet that can include acorns and even small reptiles.

Turkeys have much better vision than humans do; in fact, their vision is three times better. They can also see in color, and their eyesight covers 270 degrees.  However, they don’t see well at night.  For that reason, although they spend a lot of time on the ground during the day, when it gets dark, they move into the trees for safety.

An adult turkey has 5,000 to 6,000 feathers.  An adult tom, on average, weighs 16 to 22 pounds.  An adult hen is smaller, weighing around eight to twelve pounds.  A tom has a beard of modified feathers on his breast.  A tom’s beard can reach seven or more inches long.  Toms have sharp spurs on their legs for fighting.  Hens have neither a beard nor long, sharp spurs.  Both sexes have a snood (a fleshy flap that hangs from the beak) and a wattle (the red skin that hangs below the turkey’s chin).  They’re just smaller and less distinct on the females.   

The color of a turkey’s head changes as they become more excited.  Colors can change from red to blue to white, depending on how excited they are. The more intense the color is, the more excited they are.

Turkeys may have first been domesticated about 2000 years ago.  Domestication started when turkeys were penned up and used for their feathers, bones and meat.  This process resulted in what we now know as the domestic turkey, Meleagris gallopavo domesticus.   

Besides the wild turkey, there is one other species of turkey in the world.  The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is found in Mexico and Central America.  This turkey has iridescent plumage of blue, green, and bronze, and a featherless powder-blue head speckled with red and orange.

One more “turkey tidbit” for you.  Lee Richardson Zoo is closed on Thanksgiving Day to allow staff time to spend the holiday with friends and family.  But if you want to walk off some turkey on Friday, we’ll be open at 8 a.m.  Happy Thanksgiving!


Image: A Wild Tom Turkey displays its plumage. 

- Kristi Newland, Zoo Director

The Creatures of Kansas Hall

As the weather turns cold and the animals spend more of their time huddled indoors, the zoo tends to feel a lot quieter. After all, not every family will want to brave the freezing temperatures, especially if the rhino, giraffe, and lion yards are all empty. But for those who still hope to see some cool critters, there is one corner of the zoo that stays warm all year long and where the animals are always on display: The Finnup Center for Conservation Education’s Kansas Hall.

            Although often overlooked by zoo visitors, the Finnup Center is open five days a week and is home to a variety of interactive displays and exhibits. Small animal habitats line the sides of Kansas Hall, which is currently home to eleven animals of ten species. Many of the species represented here are reptiles and amphibians, and most can be found in the state of Kansas. This gives visitors the opportunity to safely observe our native species up close.

            Among those native species are three Kansas amphibians: the great plains toad, the plains spadefoot toad, and the barred tiger salamander, which is the state amphibian of Kansas. As amphibians, these three animals thrive in more humid environments. To combat the dry air of Kansas Hall, their enclosures are thoroughly misted every day. In the wild, these animals would bury themselves deep underground to prevent their skin from drying out.  This helps keep their delicate skin in good condition and lets them live long, healthy lives. In fact, our spadefoot toad, Shada, is over eighteen years old!

            The rest of the Kansas natives are mostly reptiles. Our two ornate box turtles, Buck and Smalls, are regularly used as educational ambassadors to represent our state reptile. We also exhibit three native snakes, all of whom are nonvenomous and very beneficial to the ecosystem: the bullsnake, the milksnake, and the hognose. These animals, too, are ambassadors for their species, and help teach the lesson that snakes are not as bad as people seem to think they are. Since snakes are cold-blooded and get most of their energy from the sun, winter presents a major challenge for them. In the wild they stop eating, hide underground, and enter a sleepy state called brumation. This helps them conserve energy through the colder months.

            The last Kansas native species in the hall is represented by Captain Barnacles, the black-footed ferret. Once common across the great plains, black-footed ferret numbers dropped rapidly during the 1800s due to human-introduced diseases and the fur trade, and have since become one of the rarest and most endangered mammals in the United States. There are only around 700 black-footed ferrets left in the world, and breeding programs are working very hard to bring those numbers back up. Captain came to us from a breeding facility to help educate the public about this unique species.

            If you’re interested in learning more about our Kansas wildlife (or in taking a break from the cold on your next zoo visit), we encourage you to come visit the Kansas Hall critters at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. The building is open Monday through Friday, 8 am to 12 pm and 1pm to 5 pm, is just a block West of the zoo entrance, and can be accessed both from the street and from inside the zoo. We hope to see you here!


Image: "Carmen" the tiger barred salamander

-Houston Glover, Conservation Awareness Coordinator