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///Species Spotlight: Wild Turkey

Species Spotlight: Wild Turkey

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee. Photo by Tim Lumley.

In keeping with the holiday theme of our last newsletter articles, I quickly volunteered to write the article for this November. Maybe, subconsciously, my willingness to take on the task was out of sheer laziness, but of course this article is going to be about wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). I must admit that I really didn’t pay much attention to them growing up in Pennsylvania where deer and grouse reign supreme. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began my appreciation for this truly American bird: I am with Ben Franklin on that one. I remember inadvertently coming across a clutch of brown spotted beige turkey eggs once when I was helping a farmer bail hay long ago. He somehow had noticed and avoided the nest while cutting the hay near a mature mixed oak stand of his woodlot. Unfortunately, the female (hen) seemed to have abandoned the nest after the incident, which often happens when a nest is disturbed early in incubation, and the eggs soon disappeared. After that I started to become aware of the population of turkey that traversed this particular farm; whether it was finding feathers during treks through the woods there or else watching them running across the field from one wooded patch to another. Remarkably, wild turkey can run at speeds at around 20 mile per hour and fly, although not preferred, at speeds of 50 miles per hour.

After a crash in population a century ago, wild turkey have rebounded across the landscape due to an increased availability of habitat, managed restoration, reintroduction efforts, and practical hunting regulations. There are six sub-species of M. gallopavo native to North America that can be found roaming in every state except Alaska. The most common and widespread is the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), which historically ranged from Maine to Florida and out west as far as the Great Plains.

Wild turkey are non-migratory and have a home range of about one square mile, over which they travel extensively through the course of the year. Their habitat requirements at different stages of their annual life cycle are diverse, and their home range must contain all of these habitat types. Mature woodlands with an abundance of mast producing trees and shrubs are very important over much of the year. Mast generally refers to fruiting bodies of woody plants like acorns (hard mast) and berries (soft mast) but can also include catkins and buds of which wild turkey consume. Turkey also require clearings that support grasses, forbs and other succulent vegetation for forage. This vegetation also supports an abundance of insects and other arthropods, which are essential protein sources for developing juvenile turkeys.

Wild turkey stay segregated by sex for much of the year. Courtship begins in late winter/early spring when mature males, called toms or gobblers, begin to advertise their “virility” through vocalizations (gobbling) and strutting with tail feathers fanned, head held back and feathers puffed out. Dominant males will establish a territory during mating season and defend it to exclude other males and, therefore, mate with multiple females. Dominant males continue this display until available females, called hens, cease to respond or simply get tired of these shenanigans. Turkey hens are ground nesting and will seek out low vegetation like shrubs, vines and tall grasses where they create cup shaped depression in litter or grass and then deposit 8 to 14 eggs over the next few weeks. Once the full clutch is laid, the hen severs all ties to the tom and begins an incubation process that lasts around 28 days.

Turkey hatchlings, called poults, are precocial and can feed themselves fairly soon after emerging. Hens lead their poults away from the nest within a few hours after hatching. Although poults begin to fly short distances within a week and can roost in trees in about two weeks, they are quite vulnerable to climate conditions and predation. Hens will often shelter their young from the elements under the cover of their wings and draw would-be predators away by feigning an injury like a broken wing. Poults stay with their mother throughout the summer, at first only eating arthropods and eventually taking on their adult omnivorous diet of seeds, grasses, tubers, insects, snails, fruits, and nuts. In autumn young males leave their cohort and join separate all male flocks. Hens and their female poults will join larger all-female flocks as well.

Most private lands are probably not large enough to support all the habitat needs of eastern wild turkey but since their habitat requirements vary throughout the year, your land and management activities can provide important components. Populations have rebounded in part due to our maturing forests. Promoting the growth and expansion of mast producing trees provides a vital food source especially during winter. Implementing a timber stand improvement that increases growing space for high valued oaks, for instance, increases the quantity of acorns in your woods as tree crowns expand. Having oaks species for both white and red oak groups too is valuable since acorns from red oak group are not as palatable in autumn as white oaks acorns due to higher tannin content and, therefore, allows them to be an available late winter food. Abundant acorn crops can be cyclical so it is important to promote a diversity of vegetation in your woodlands too. Pine, hickory and American beech are other great sources of hard mast. Pine and other conifers also provide thermal protection for roosting and year-round coverage. Hackberry, blackgum, flowering dogwood, spicebush, greenbrier, and grapevine all provide a soft mast at various times available to turkey and other wildlife. Birch and alder produce catkins that are available throughout winter.

Creating or enhancing small clearings in or around you woodlot provides that crucial brooding habitat for poults and also excellent foraging habitat for most of the year.  Grassy, shrubby patches adjacent to mature forest provides escape and thermal cover. Turkey tend not to venture far from protective cover, so the interior of large clearcut areas may not be utilized for a few years, until shrubs and saplings grow tall enough to offer cover. Openings will need to be periodically maintained to keep them in the early successional stage. Mowing the site (or portions of it) every one to three years helps to push back the emerging forest. Be sure to address and control any invasive plants early on. Creating a soft edge between the clearing and the woodlot also provides better escape and cover for turkey and promotes the establishment of early successional and mast producing shrubs like viburnums, elderberry, sumac, and blackberry.   

Having a seep or spring on you property is pretty special and very beneficial for wildlife, especially in the winter. Areas around seeps can remain unfrozen for much of the winter and may support herbaceous growth for a longer period. Protect them.

There are a plethora of resources about eastern wild turkey on the Forests for the Bay website for you to peruse and listings for local wildlife technical resource providers. As you sit down with family this Thanksgiving holiday to partake in food, libations and revelry, maybe work in a discussion about the habitat requirements of the eastern wild turkey. I assure you, nothing burns more calories while also inspiring unity than a family wildlife habitat inventory of your land.

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Craig Highfield Director of Chesapeake Forests Program, Maryland Office

Craig is the Director of our Chesapeake Forests Program, where he manages a variety of projects that improve existing forests, create new ones, and educate residents and decision-makers about the benefits of forests in the Chesapeake watershed.

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