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Life History of the Wild Turkey

Lofe History of the Wild Turkey
Turkey Chicks

Mountaineers acquire their love of the out-doors as children and this natural relationship seldom weakens throughout adult-hood.  I remember listening to may wife’s grandfather, an old mountaineer.  It was easy to become engrossed in his hunting stories.  He started hunting in his youth with a muzzleloading rifle that was so big that he had to sit down and rest the gun on his raised knees when shooting because he could not hold it while standing.  In early adulthood caring for his family took most of his time, but he always loved the outdoors.  In his youth he did not always understand the importance of game laws and taking game was of prime importance.  As he reached his 80s he began to have more reverence for all wildlife.  When I visited him, he would ask questions regarding topics from stocking fish in ponds to improving habitat for wildlife.  He particularly loved to talk about the wild turkey and would approach me with a flurry of questions.  To my knowledge he never did bag a gobbler in the spring and never saw the abundance of turkeys near his home until after he was physically unable to pursue them.


Why does the wild turkey command such interest, intrigue, and respect from mountaineers?  I’m not sure.  But I do know that when I speak to people they enjoy learning of the life of the wild turkey.  Questions are numerous regarding the turkey’s life history, behavior, and foods, among other things.  Some are specific, for example:  How much range does a turkey cover?  How many eggs does a hen lay?  What are their favorite foods?  I have even been asked how many “hairs” are in a turkey’s beard.  We don’t know all the answers, but this article covers a year in the life of the wild turkey.  Perhaps it will answer some of your questions about this fascinating bird.


Courtship of wild turkeys generally begins in March and April, although gobblers may start gobbling in late January or February.  Spring courtship peaks in April with gobblers trying to attract hens.  Gobblers like to gobble from high points and ridgetops and are different from songbirds that defend a territory.  Instead, the gobbler attempts to dominate other gobblers.  This means they have the ability to recognize other individuals.  Through threats and fighting, gobblers establish a pecking order, a hierarchy where one bird dominates or pecks those of lesser social rank.  The dominant birds are usually older birds and do most of the mating.  The hen visits or comes to the gobbler, but gobblers also travel over an area looking for hens if they are not in the immediate vicinity.  Juvenile gobblers, called jakes, appear to move more than adults just as juvenile hens appear to move farther from their winter range than adult hens.  This widespread movement of juvenile birds in the spring and fall partly explains how the birds move into unoccupied range.


Hens may visit a gobbler several times, and begin laying eggs in their nest in mid-April.  They lay about one egg per day, and after a normal clutch of 12 eggs is laid, they begin the process of incubation.   Since incubation is started after the entire clutch of eggs is laid, most eggs hatch at the same time, in 26 to 28 days.  Nest locations can be quite variable with nests located in thick laurel cover, areas where the timber has been cut, forested edges, fields, or even in open woods.  Turkeys frequently build nests in a place that has some overhanging cover like a treetop, and commonly build them at the base of a tree.  Most West Virginia turkeys start incubating eggs around the first of May with the majority of eggs hatching near the end of May or the first half of June.  Birds forced to abandon nests will sometimes renest.  There are always exceptions to the rule, and we know of one case where a clutch hatched in March.  I have also observed birds nesting as late as August, but in these cases, survival of the young is virtually zero.  The hard fact in the life of the turkey is that only about one-third of the hens are successful in rearing their young until fall.  Although the reproductive potential seems large with so many eggs layed, turkeys are ground nesters, and predators such as snakes, raccoons, dogs, and even crows will destroy nests.  Hens are sometimes killed on the nest.  As a matter of fact, the brood-rearing period is a precarious time for hens with 20 percent of them being killed by predators during the nesting and brood-rearing period.


It takes chicks, called poults, about 24 hours to pip through an egg.  The young chicks are ready to follow the hen within 12 to 24 hours and actively begin pursuing insects after leaving the nest.  They feed largely on insects the first four to six weeks of life, but seeds and vegetable matter make up the majority of their food after that time.  About half of the poults will die or be killed during the first two weeks of life, but by the fourth week survival is good.  Chicks can fly when they are eight days old, but roosting in trees does not begin before the second week of life.  Many don’t roost in trees until they are three to four weeks of age.


Where is the gobbler during this period in the summer?  He doesn’t help with the care of young and generally lives a solitary life or moves in groups with other gobblers which are frequently his siblings.


The young poults and hens spend virtually all their daylight hours feeding.  They frequent fields and areas with herbaceous vegetation where insects and seeds can be found.  In late summer, they move into areas with an abundance of fruit like blackberries, blueberries, and huckleberries.  They still feed on insects, however, until freezing weather decreases insect numbers.


Around mid-September birds shift into the big woods where acorns, beechnuts, dogwood, and other fruits begin to mature.  As fall approaches birds fight more and begin to establish dominance.  The young gobblers and hens form separate pecking orders.  The hen, however, remains as the dominant bird over the poults until the young males leave the flock.  The flock breakup may start around November with young gobblers going their separate ways.  The young females may remain with the hen until the next breeding season.


Young birds in the fall are capable of eating even the large acorns of red and chestnut oaks which are ground in their gizzards.  They continue to gain weight rapidly with young birds being a pound heavier in November than in October.  In the summer, broods may range over 250 to 1,000 acres depending on habitat quality.  In the fall, their range can again vary a great deal depending on the mast crop.  The Wildlife Resources Division is presently conducting research on range size, and results will be available soon.  Research in some states shows flocks may range over an area from 200 acres to more than a square mile, averaging around 350 acres.  Sometimes young birds from the flock can move drastically in the fall.  The Wildlife Resources Division had on record a young gobbler that moved over 34 miles in two weeks.


In the winter most turkeys in West Virginia depend heavily on acorns as their staple food, but in our higher elevations beechnuts, white ash, and cherry seeds are also important foods.  Turkeys also concentrate in wild grape tangles when grapes are plentiful.  Turkeys can survive on a variety of foods if acorns are not abundant.  Biologists frequently refer to turkeys as omnivorous opportunists, which means they eat whatever acceptable items are available, both animal and plant matter.  They eat a variety of seeds, tubers, insects, salamanders, worms, and leafy vegetation.  In deep snows they frequent spring seeps that don’t freeze and harbor a variety of seeds and plant matter.  During the severe winter of 1977-78, reports were frequent of birds eating dried blackberries and crabapples.  White ash seeds can be very important in heavy snows because they do not fall until mid- to late-winter.  Turkeys will even pick insect larvae found on the bark of trees.  Recent studies have shown that wild turkeys can withstand temperatures as low as minus 37 degrees and can lower their body temperature at night to save energy.  Hunters have reported strange looking beards in the spring that look like they have been cut with scissors.  The cause is likely due to ice balls forming on the beards and breaking them.


In the winter months birds may be seen in large flocks.  I first heard of a flock that contained 100 birds around 1970.  In recent years reports of more than 100 birds in a flock have been common, and I had one report of more than 200 birds.  These large flocks contain both gobblers and hens, leaving the impression that the birds stay together all winter.  But these flocks are generally the result of concentrated food such as cornfields or artificial food sources.  The gobblers may maintain contact with the hens, but they are still segregationists.  Sometimes the males will lag behind or stay on the flanks of a large flock.


Large turkey flocks have led to rumors that turkeys are eating all the foods of ruffed grouse and white-tailed deer.  That is not true.  Not every hollow has a flock of 100 birds, and there are many times more deer in West Virginia than turkeys.  In addition, if an area ever has more turkeys than deer or ruffed grouse, it is because the habitat is better for turkeys than these other two species.  These three animals have different habitat requirements.


Starvation of wild turkeys is generally not a problem in West Virginia.  Even during the most severe winters on record (1977 and 1978), starvation reports were uncommon, and most reports of widespread starvation were not verified.  This does not mean starvation does not occur, but the problem is not as widespread starvation were not verified.  This does not mean starvation does not occur, but the problem is not as widespread in West Virginia as it is in areas farther north.  A number of years ago, a study of winter weather was conducted in the Northeast.  Parts of West Virginia received more snowfall than some areas in northern states, but West Virginia also had more days when the ground was not covered.  In addition, a rise in temperature will temporarily result I crusting of the snow which allows birds to move around on top of the snow.  I once measured snow 19 inches deep in one area, but the turkeys were walking on top of the snow because it had crusted.  On the other hand, snow that has not crusted can stop turkey movements, especially when there are about 12 inches of powdery snow.  At such times, usually, turkeys will remain on the roost or fly to a feeding area such as a spring seep.  Studies have shown that wild turkeys can survive up to two weeks without food under severe winter conditions.


Where do turkeys spend their nights in the winter and other seasons of the year?  In severe winter weather turkeys will frequent conifer stands such as hemlock, spruce, and pines where the temperature and wind are more tolerable.  During fair weather they frequently roost in hardwood knolls and the edges of hillside benches. These areas offer a good view of the surrounding area.  Turkeys will change roost locations depending on where they stopped feeding for the day, but sometimes they will return to the same roost locations.  I have seen roost sites with so many droppings underneath that they take on the appearance of a blackbird roost site.  Last winter, a roosting area was located where broods roosted in the same conifer patch for neatly two months.  The birds stayed because the snow was deep and they were being artificially fed by local residents.


As winter departs and spring approaches, the life cycle of the turkey begins to repeat itself.  During the year turkeys may have ranged over more than 2,000 acres of woodlots and fields.  Gobblers start gobbling and the large flocks break up again.  Young birds again move more than adults.  I know of one bird that moved 20 miles in the spring.  During the next 12 months approximately half of the birds will not survive.  Most that die will be eaten by predators.  Even with this loss of birds, there are individual turkeys that have been known to live a long life in the wild.  One banded turkey hen lived at least 8 ½ years and one gobbler lived 12 ½ years.


Turkeys have managed to expand their numbers in West Virginia, and the state now has more than 150,000.  Wild turkeys are now found statewide, a situation many states do not enjoy.  West Virginia’s tremendous turkey population is due to improved habitat conditions, protecting the resource, and the wild-trapped turkey transplant program that resulted in turkeys being moved into 37 counties of the state.


Overall turkeys live a good life in West Virginia as evidenced by their growing numbers.  How long this remains so will depend on management by the Division of Natural Resources, the people in the state and, and most importantly, how long we have quality habitat.  The wild turkeys is a good barometer to measure our “wildlands.”  My wife’s grandfather in his early years experienced the outdoors without hearing gobbling in the spring, the marvel of hens with their poults in the summer, and flocks of birds in the winter scratching our woodlands with their tell-tall V-shaped scratching pattern.  Fortunately, before his death, he was able to see the wild turkey again.  Maybe he was excited about turkeys because he observed in his lifetime the two extremes, and appreciated more what we have today.


By the way, I remember reading about a biologist who counted the number of bristles in 12 turkey beards.  He found the number varied from 152 to 677!


--Jim Pack


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