(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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
- 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
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
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
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.