July 2023 Natural Mystery Answered

Our July Natural Mystery proved to be a challenge. Everyone who wrote in identified this as a bird track, but no one correctly identified the species. Many of the features of this track were obscured, but there is one tell-tale mark that allows us to ID this track with confidence.

This is the track of a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

We can begin our analysis by identifying this as a game bird track. We see three long, forward-facing toes and a small hallux. An oval metatarsal pad is faintly visible. The track measures about 4 9/16” long.

There are only two birds that leave game bird tracks that size in this region: Wild Turkey and Sandhill Crane.

Typically, Sandhill Cranes splay their toes much wider than Wild Turkeys do. At first glance, the wide-splayed toes look more typical of a Sandhill Crane. But this track does not look typical for either a turkey or a crane, and we should consider why. The track shows a great deal of soil movement, suggesting that this animal is running. When running, turkey toes may splay wider than usual. We will need to look for other clues to get a positive ID here.

Many of the other features with help distinguish turkey tracks from crane tracks are not clearly visible here. Turkeys have wide, blunt nails while cranes have more slender nails. Turkeys have bulbous toes while cranes have smoother toes with an even width along their length. But the soil movement makes it difficult to interpret the exact shape of the toes or the claws.

There is, however, one distinguishing feature that is clearly visible in this track, and that is the hallux. Cranes have a small, short hallux which often does not register. When it does register, it appears as a tiny dot just behind the metatarsal. Turkeys have a much longer hallux with a more robust nail at the end. It usually registers clearly, and registers much farther behind the metatarsal.

The prominent mark registering about 1 1/4” behind the palm is our diagnostic clue. This is the impression of the robust hallux of a wild turkey.

Thanks as always to everyone who sent in an answer to this Natural Mystery!

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