Wild Turkey

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Phenology

SpringWhen spring weather arrives, the wild turkeys that survived the winter will break up. From early March through mid-April, adult male turkeys (toms) will be displaying and gobbling to attract females (hens). Hens lay eggs in April and May, and most eggs hatch in May or early June.

SummerSmall flocks of wild turkeys spend their summer foraging in grassy fields and open woods. Hens and their hatchlings (poults) flock together, while mature toms form bachelor flocks.

FallAs fall arrives, the diet of wild turkey changes to foods with higher fat content. Their foraging focuses on acorns, fruits, and crop residue from harvesting corn and soybeans and grains.

WinterWinter is the deadliest time for wild turkeys. Foraging for food in snow can be difficult and leaves them vulnerable to predators looking for a feast. There is safety in numbers, so turkeys congregate in larger flocks in January and February. With more eyes and ears monitoring for predators, it is easier to avoid becoming a meal. Hens and juvenile females (Jennies) join groups of 50 or more birds, while toms and young males (Jakes) form separate flocks.

Behavior

RoostingWild turkeys spend the night in trees to avoid nocturnal predators. They typically begin their roost at dusk and fly to the ground at sunrise. In the winter, they prefer dense conifers, which protect the birds from the wind. In severe weather, wild turkeys can stay in the roosting area for up to two weeks.

Physiology

FeathersIn cold weather, wild turkeys will fluff their contour feathers (piloerection) to trap warm air. This trapped air acts as insulation and reduces the number of calories needed to survive the cold. In severe weather, turkeys will tuck their bald heads under the back feathers to keep from losing heat. In warm weather, the lack of feathers on the turkey’s head helps prevent overheating.

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Cold feet, Warm birdLike other birds, turkeys use countercurrent heat exchange to conserve heat they would otherwise lose through their bare legs. The veins and arteries in the bird’s featherless legs are close to each other. Before the warm arterial blood gets to the turkey’s feet, the veins absorb much of the heat and return it to the body. This exchange of heat keeps a bird’s feet colder, often just above freezing. Birds have little muscle or nerve tissue in their exposed legs and feet, so there is no need to waste energy keeping them warm.

Diet

The wild turkey’s winter diet consists of acorns, hazelnuts, various seeds, and any agricultural grain missed by the harvesters.

Fat as fuelA turkey can survive up to a week without food by metabolizing fat, resulting in losing up to 40% of its body weight. Young birds have less body fat than adults, which results in higher winter mortality. First-year females have more significant fat reserves than first-year males and, as such, fare better in the harshness of winter.

Lifespan and Mortality

The lifespan of an adult wild turkey is three to five years.

PredatorsPredators of wild turkeys include raccoons, red foxes, dogs, feral cats, opossums, skunks, and hawks. Predation is most intense with young turkeys and turkey eggs.

Winter MortalityBoth crusted snow and powdery snow deeper than 12 inches are more of a threat to turkeys than low temperatures. These winter conditions make it difficult for the birds to walk and put the limited food supply out of reach. The average survival of wild turkeys over mild or moderate winters ranges from 70% to nearly 100%, but severe winters can reduce this survival rate to 55%-60%.

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Climate Vulnerability

Audubon’s climate models show that wild turkeys may lose 87 percent of their current winter range by 2080. While parts of the US will become less suited to wild turkeys, they will likely expand their range farther into Canada.

Early spring weather is typically unstable, with more significant temperature swings and more precipitation. Early egg-laying in response to warm spells can leave chicks vulnerable to cold and damp conditions.

Never stop learning

Scatology: The feces of male turkeys are J-shaped and larger than the feces of females. Hen droppings form a spiral.

First Nations: The Ojibwe word for turkey is “Mizise.”

References

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>