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Talking Turkey: Kids learn more about Thanksgiving's top bird
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This turkey exhibit at the KWEC shows the patriotic red, white and blue colors the bird can display to attract a mate. - photo by Susan Thacker

With Thanksgiving just days away, children flocked to the Kansas Wetlands Education Center on Saturday to talk turkey. Pam Martin and other staff explained the peculiarities of our favorite holiday bird, from head to toe — or snood to spur.

A group of turkeys is called a rafter, said Martin, an educator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. One family that drove to the center for the morning class reported seeing a rafter in the fog on Bissel’s point road, just a few miles from the center.

The lexicon on turkey anatomy includes some wonderful words, Martin said.

The snood is a piece of skin that hangs over a turkey’s beak, the wattle hangs under its chin and the fleshy, bulbous bumps that grow over the head and neck are called caruncles. Male turkeys also grow a cluster of long, hairlike feathers from the center of the chest, called a beard, and have an extra claw — or spur — on the back of their legs.

The male uses its spur for fighting other tom turkeys, while the hens have only a small bump on this part of their legs.

"There weren’t very many turkeys here back in the pioneer days," Martin said. Both turkeys and deer became more common in central Kansas after farmers planted more trees, which provide shelter. In fact, a tree branch over a pool of water is a favorite roosting place for a turkey, which instinctively prefers the safest perch.

A wild turkey can fly at speeds up to 55 mph, but their wings aren’t strong enough to support their weight for long distances, Martin said. "They tend to stay on the ground."

Benjamin Franklin is said to have proposed the turkey over the bald eagle as America’s national bird, favoring its majestic appearance and wily intelligence. It even sports patriotic colors: The skin a tom’s head can change from shades of blue to white, and the wattle can change from red to white, as it attempts to attract hens.

In spite of the fog Saturday morning, Martin’s class was filled to capacity. "These Saturday morning classes are pretty popular," she said.

Operated by Fort Hays State University as an annex of Sternberg Museum at 592 NE K-156, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center includes a 2,000-square-foot exhibit gallery, classroom, auditorium and gift store. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from 1-5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays. Admission is free. For more information call 620-786-7456 or 1-877-243-9268.