Backyard Wildlife: Wild Turkey
(Scientific Name Meleagris gallopavo)
Chances are most of the readers of this blog don’t have turkeys visiting their backyard. However, if we were living a mere fifty years ago, the chances that any of us would have seen a wild turkey would have been pretty close to zero. At one time, wild turkeys were extirpated from large areas of their original range in the U.S. This decline in turkey populations resulted from unregulated hunting, habitat destruction and even the civil war. With greater awareness of the environment and stricter oversight, the turkey has returned to all of its original range. Turkeys can be found in all the lower 48 states and Hawaii. More locally, institutions such as the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the sportsmen and women who care about game animals have successfully returned the turkey to healthy population levels. The turkey is a prime example of how scientific wildlife management can work for the betterment of our environment.
When we learn a little more about the wild turkey, it is easy to understand why Benjamin Franklin wanted this animal to be the symbol of our country. While domesticated turkeys are pretty dumb, the same cannot be said of its wild counter part. Wild turkeys have excellent vision and hearing as any turkey hunter will confirm. They are a majestic bird and good eating. Their preferred method of fleeing danger is running where they can attain speeds of 12 mph. However, if necessary they can take to flight at speeds of up to 55 mph.
Male turkeys, called toms or gobblers, are easily distinguished from their female counterparts. Like most male birds, their colors are brighter and more expressive. Male turkeys can exhibit colors ranging from rust to green to golden. Female coloration, by contrast, tends to be a dull brown. Toms are also distinguishable by their larger size. Their average weight is 18-22 lbs, which is about twice as much as an average female. Dominant males have the privilege of mating with a large harem of hens (female turkeys). Non-dominant males just have to stand around. They are not allowed to mate because the dominant male won’t let them. With this sort of sexual pecking order, God ensured that the strongest males were siring the next generation of turkeys. Thus ensuring a better chance of the species survival. Mating occurs during the spring with the males putting on quite a show to attract females. Toms will strut, show off their plumage and make vocalizations. The gobble that is so recognizable is actually a mating call. However, you should know that a total of 28 calls have been identified. They range in meaning from let’s make little turkeys to flee there is danger here.
Two weeks after mating, females will lay about 12 eggs. The eggs are about the size of chicken eggs and have dark brown speckles on them. Unlike other birds, turkeys lay their eggs on the ground. The nest is typically little more than a scratched depression with a few leaves in it. Twenty eight days later the clutch (batch of turkey eggs) hatch. The young, called “poults”, will leave the nest quickly after hatching. In a few days they quickly learn how to catch insects. In one to two weeks, the poults can actually fly short distances. After 6 weeks of development, the poults begin eating plant material. It is estimated that only 35% of all the turkey nests ever hatch young. Predation by raccoons and opossums take a heavy toll on eggs. Of the eggs that hatch only 50% of the poults survive to maturity. It must be remembered that nature is a life and death struggle of tooth and claw.
Adult turkeys eat a wide variety of foods. This is to be expected since the best turkey habitat is a mixture of woods and fields. Turkeys eat grapes, blackberries, beechnuts and acorns, grains, grasses, ferns and insects. They also have been known to eat snakes, frogs, lizards, salamanders and crabs. Note that turkeys are not scavengers. They don’t eat dead animals like an eagle would. I understand that it was the eagle’s propensity to eat dead animals that turned Benjamin Franklin against the eagle as the national symbol.
The best time to look for turkeys is early morning or late afternoon. It seems these are the times they like to forage. Don’t forget to look for them in trees. They do roost in trees during the night time and when they flee danger. I would suggest binoculars because turkeys are a cautious bunch. They won’t let you get too close.
If you would like to learn more about wild turkeys I would suggest you visit the National Wildlife Turkey Federation website at http://www.nwtf.org/. Next time someone calls you a turkey, ask him do you mean a wild turkey or a domesticated turkey. If he says, “What is the difference?”. You will now be able to tell him.
About the Author
Stephen M. Vantassel is a certified wildlife control operator who helps individuals, businesses, and agencies resolve wildlife damage issues through training, writing, expert witness, and research. His latest books are the Wildlife Damage Inspection Handbook, 3rd edition and The Practical Guide to the Control of Feral Cats. He can be contacted at wildlifecontrolconsultant at gmail dot com.
If you would like your publication, video, or product reviewed, please contact the author at the e-mail above.
All postings are the property of Stephen M. Vantassel and Wildlife Control Consultant, LLC. Text (not images) may be reprinted in non-profit publications provided that the author and website URL is included. If images wish to be used, explicit and written permission must be obtained from Wildlife Control Consultant, LLC.