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Eastern Wild Turkey Fact Sheet

(Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)

The eastern subspecies of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most widely distributed and abundant of the five distinct subspecies of wild turkey found in the United States. They can also grow to be the largest. Surprisingly, though, they are very mobile birds with running speed of up to 25 miles per hour and flying speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

Wild turkeys are dependent on a varied habitat consisting of hardwood and mixed forests. In the 1800s, Vermont's wild turkeys were pushed to extinction due to extensive clearing of these forests and the spread of agricultural lands. They were first reintroduced in 1969 and fortunately have made a tremendous come back. They are now widespread in deciduous forests.

Physical Description

The general appearance of the wild turkey is similar to that of a domestic turkey, except that a wild bird has a more streamlined body shape. The head is featherless and is generally red, white, and chalky blue. The adult male, known as a tom or gobbler, is larger and more colorful than the female. He has spurs on the back of his legs for fighting, and a beard of stiff, bristle-like feathers protruding from the center of his chest. No one is sure why a tom has a beard. An adult gobbler may range from 16 to 25 pounds with a juvenile male (yearling) weighing around 12 to 15 pounds.

An adult female, or hen, is smaller than a male and lacks head colorings as well as a beard and spurs. However, a very small percentage of Vermont hens have thin beards. A hen may range in size from 9 to 14 pounds with a juvenile female ranging from 7 to 10 pounds. A young male turkey is called a jake and a young female turkey is called a jenny. The young are smaller than the adults, and share the coloration of an adult female.

A wild turkey is well adapted for survival. A turkey sees at least ten times better than people, and it can distinguish colors. A turkey can see almost 360 degrees, so it is very difficult to sneak up on a turkey without being detected.

Flocking is a behavioral strategy a turkey employs to detect predators. If one turkey does not see you, another turkey in the flock probably will and then vocalize to alert the others. A turkey also has excellent hearing, but a poor sense of smell.

Vocalizing or voice communication is something turkeys do often. Members of a flock will cluck to let others know where they are. They make purring sounds when feeding, and a loud "putt" sound serves as a warning. Toms gobble during mating season to attract females. Hens will cluck to their young while they are still in the eggs. Once young turkeys, or poults hatch, they listen closely to their mother. They follow her commands to scatter, hide, or come back.

Life Cycle

The reproductive cycle for the wild turkey begins in spring. As days get longer and warmer, toms can be heard gobbling and seen strutting to attract hens. Turkeys are polygamous, mating with more than on partner, and a relatively few dominant gobblers do most of the breeding. No breeding is believed to be accomplished by one-year-old gobblers when adult gobblers are in the vicinity. The peak of turkey breeding in Vermont generally occurs in mid-April.

The nest is a slight depression in the forest litter situated near vegetation or under a brush pile that provides concealment. Turkey eggs are larger than chicken eggs and are tan with brown flecks. An average clutch is 10-15 eggs laid over 12-18 days. Incubation takes 28 days. Hatching occurs during the end of May and early June.

Young turkeys move about with the hen shortly after hatching. During their first three weeks, a primary cause of mortality is cold, wet weather, although poults are also vulnerable to predators at this time. Soon, their acute vision, alertness, and ability to fly help them to avoid predators. An average of 11 poults born in the spring will probably be reduced to about seven by fall.

Several hens and their poults often flock and travel together through the summer and winter. The next spring's breeding season disrupts the family group because the hens, both yearlings and older birds, settle down to raise a new family.

Food Items

Young poults need high protein foods for rapid growth. The hen will take them to open fields and meadows to catch insects. Adult turkeys also eat insects. Turkeys also eat plants and seeds during the summer. By fall, wild turkeys eat fruits, nuts, and berries. Some favorite turkey foods are acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, grass, and corn. During Vermont winters, turkeys eat primarily mosses, buds, fern spores, seeds, and leftover corn found on farms.

Turkeys eat nuts during fall to build up fat, which helps keep them alive when food is buried under the snow. In years without many nuts, and if all other food is covered by deep, powdery snow, turkeys may have difficulty finding enough food to keep them alive. During heavy snow cover, turkeys must rely on food found on top of the edges of pools of water or on patches of bare ground. Turkeys will sometimes eat the buds off twigs and stems. Hard-crusted snow makes it easier for turkeys to move and find food, while deep powdery snow hinders their movement.

Habits and Habitats

Wild turkeys are social birds and prefer to live and travel together in groups called flocks. The breeding season disrupts flocks to some extent, but throughout most of the year, hens and young birds live in flocks of up to thirty or more. Toms or jakes may gather together, forming a bachelor flock. They often stay close to a big flock of hens and young birds. Every turkey in a flock has a place in the social order, and there is usually one dominant male turkey.

Turkeys travel primarily on foot, with occasional short flights to escape trouble. Long, strong legs enable wild turkeys to run fast - as much as 25 miles per hour. Wild turkeys can fly at a speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour.

A typical summer day for a hen and her poults begins at dawn. They leave the canopy of trees where they spent the night roosting, and the family eats until midmorning. Then, they may take a dust bath. Dusting turkeys scratch dirt onto their bodies, ruffle their feathers, and wiggle in the dust. This may be a way turkeys deal with parasites.

The family may rest until early afternoon when another feeding period begins. At dusk, the turkeys fly up into a large tree to roost for the night and to protect themselves from predators. Poults begin to roost with their mother at about three weeks of age. Before this, they cannot fly well enough to get into the trees. At first, the poults roost for the night huddled under the hen's wings. As summer goes on, they start roosting further and further away from her. By fall, the poults will be roosting in other trees near their mother. Although turkeys roost in trees to avoid ground predators, avian predators, such as the great horned owl are still a threat. When dawn begins to brighten the sky turkeys fly down from their roost to search for food.

The area that a turkey lives in is called its home range. A turkey's home range may be from 400 to 4,000 acres. A turkey needs several types of habitat within its range:
  • Forests which include trees that produce nuts for food, large trees for roosting, and evergreens for winter cover. Southern slopes are preferred because they are warmer in the winter and have less snow accumulation.
  • Open fields provide nesting sites and insects during the summer
  • Croplands provide forage for food
  • Tall grass and shrubs provide both feeding habitat as well as areas for hiding nests
Southeastern and southwestern Vermont are dominated by hardwood stands and openings that provide the best habitat for turkeys in the state. The Champlain Valley also features excellent turkey habitat. Far northern Vermont has extremely cold winters and high snow fall that can limit the survival of turkeys. This is also true of the higher elevations of the Green Mountains.

Predators

Wild turkeys are prey to a long list of predators including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, fisher, weasels, skunks, opossum, raccoons, snakes, hawks, owls, dogs, and people. As a major prey species, the turkey fulfills it natural role in the ecosystem by providing sustenance for other animals.

Through the process of natural selection, wild turkeys have co-evolved with predators over millions of years. In this long, evolutionary process, predators have had a tremendous influence in shaping the development and behavior of the wild turkey. Producing large numbers of young, re-nesting (laying another clutch of eggs if the first set is destroyed), roosting in trees, and flocking, are all survival strategies resulting from eons of predation. Many of the qualities that people admire about wild turkeys, such as their incredible eyesight, wariness, and ability to detect movement, are the product of evolution with natural predators.

Many people express concern that predators will harm the turkey population. It is clear that in spite of predation, our turkey population in Vermont continues to flourish.

Management Efforts

Early settlers cleared Vermont forests for farmland and lumber. By the mid-1800s, more than 75% of Vermont was open land. As a result, wildlife habitat was scarce, especially the forests that turkeys needed to survive. By 1854, the last of Vermont's turkeys disappeared. Loss of habitat and uncontrolled hunting wiped them out.

In the 1950s a private effort by well meaning people and fish and game clubs to reestablish turkeys in Vermont, included the release of hundreds of "game farm" turkeys throughout the state. Most of these birds were several generations removed form the wild, and therefore lacked the ability to survive Vermont's rugged winters. No game farm turkeys succeeded in establishing populations in Vermont.

Following these attempts, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department investigated the possibility of reintroducing wild turkeys to Vermont. The department worked with the New York State Conservation Department to trap wild turkeys during the winter of 1969 - 1970. The first winter's trapping captured 17 turkeys that were released in Pawlet, Vermont. The second winter of trapping resulted in 14 birds that were released in Hubbardton, Vermont.

These initial populations expanded rapidly, both in number and occupied area. In 1973, the population was estimated at more than 600 turkeys. Since 1973, additional efforts and the refinement of trapping equipment enabled Vermont Fish & Wildlife staff to capture as many as 100 turkeys in one trapping season for release in various areas of the state.

A spring turkey-hunting season was established in 1973. This was the first time wild turkeys had been hunted in Vermont in more than a century. Fall "either sex" turkey hunting began in 1975. Spring and fall hunting seasons have continued every year since. Both spring and fall turkey seasons provide a recreational opportunity for hunters and serve as a population management tool.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vermont's turkey population remained relatively stable, at an estimated 9,000 to 12, 000 birds. Unusually harsh winters reduced the population in 1993-1994, but a combination of limited hunting seasons and milder winters caused the population to rebound quickly. Vermont's turkey population has risen each year since 1994 to its highest level in recent history, and is now estimated at some 35, 000 birds.

From year to year the number of wild turkeys in Vermont will fluctuate because of a combination of random environmental factors, such as weather changes that affect nesting success, or severity of the winter that affect survival. Long-term population trends, however, are most influenced by changes in habitat and the overall landscape. Relatively mature forests now dominate 80% of the state, with only about 15% in an open, non-forested condition, such as croplands, hay fields, or pastures. Although the wild turkey is primarily regarded as a forest dwelling bird, ideal habitat conditions include a mix of forest and agricultural land, which provides the greatest opportunities for feeding, nesting, and brooding.

Agricultural lands on active farms provide most of the remaining open acreage in the state that is ideal habitat for wild turkeys. As the number of Vermont farms declines and the trend toward increased forestation continues, availability of open land may increasingly limit habitat for wild turkeys. Keeping active working dairy farms in Vermont will help maintain excellent wild turkey habitat.



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