Biodiversity on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Article Published: Jul. 26, 2012 | Modified: Jul. 26, 2012
Biodiversity on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Turkey poults will live with their mother hens for more than six months and can be seen with her crossing the parkway.

Photo by Curtis Smalling

A National Park Service report came out recently that should give us locals something to be proud about.

Not only is the Blue Ridge Parkway the most visited park in the national park system, it is ranked second in biodiversity.

The only park that outranks us in biodiversity is our sister park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is home to 74 species of mammals, 50 salamanders, 30 reptiles, hundreds of birds, more than 130 species of trees and 2,000 species of fungi.

In comparison, there’s one species of salamander, six reptiles and only a dozen fungi species that call Yellowstone “home.”

Yet, unlike Yellowstone, our native wildlife is not generally milling about the roadside in prodigious numbers. It usually takes a keen eye, knowledge of when to look and compliance with the speed limits to encounter wildlife on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A question came in this week about a frequent visitor to the parkway roadside. Keep your eyes open and you might just see one yourself.

Why are there so many turkeys on the parkway this year, and how can I tell which is male and which is female? — Roadside Watcher

Driven close to extinction due to overhunting and habitat destruction, the turkey has made a comeback in North Carolina.

In 1970, there were just 2000 turkeys recorded in the state. At that time, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission launched a reintroduction effort which ended in 2005.

Today there are more than 250,000 turkeys living in the state.

Their numbers rise and fall depending on the year’s food availability, habitat quality, predation and hunting.

This year is a good year for the turkey.

You will most likely spot turkeys on the edge of a forested area all throughout the day, but I find early morning to be the best time to observe them. They can fly for short distances, and, to my surprise one evening, can be found roosting in trees at night.

Baby turkeys are called poults. Male poults will stay with their mother for about six months, while female poults keep with the hen for a full year. Right now, the whole gang can be spotted on the parkway.

You will know the male turkey when you see him. He has dark plumage with bronze, copper and green iridescent colors. On the inside of their legs, males have spurs that they use when battling other males for mates in the spring.

Males also have a growth of bristlelike feathers known as the “beard” that extends from the chest. However, it is not uncommon for females to have beards. The head and neck of adult males is largely bare and varies in color from red to blue to white, depending on the bird’s mood.

Females are usually duller in color than males, which help camouflage them while they are nesting.
On a side note, Benjamin Franklin once wrote that the turkey was a more fitting symbol of our country than the eagle. He wrote, “(The turkey) is, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.”

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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