Wild Ideas: Gobbling season begins

A tom (male) turkey, resplendent in full display (left), with feathers puffed out and caruncles on the head and throat engorged.Larry Sherertz
A tom (male) turkey, resplendent in full display (left), with feathers puffed out and caruncles on the head and throat engorged.

My foster cat, Golda, is a great watchcat, often alerting me to wildlife in my yard. She woke me up recently, jumping to a window from the bed and staring out the window. Half asleep, I could hear gobbling outside but couldn’t spot what sounded like several turkeys nearby. They were probably out of sight in the forest surrounding the house.

A few days later, Golda rushed to one of the living-room windows and stared intensely at something in the driveway. Following her gaze, I saw a large wild turkey a few yards away from the house that was walking out of the woods and heading down the driveway. Soon another one followed, then another. Altogether, six turkeys — all toms (or gobblers), as the males are called — were out for a stroll.

Turkeys will generally group together in rafters, usually in family or single-sex groups, during the winter. With their breeding season now fully underway, I was a bit surprised to see this many males traveling together.

Wild turkeys like to forage and mate in open areas but take shelter from predators in the forest and roost at night in trees, preferably conifers (especially pine), on limbs that are 25 to 50 feet above ground. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), “a varied habitat of both open and covered area is essential for wild turkey survival.”

In early spring, males will gather together in open areas to display for females. According to All About Birds, “they puff up their body feathers, flare their tails into a vertical fan, and strut slowly while giving a characteristic gobbling call.” Such displays are also geared to warn off competing males. While males that are 1 year old (known as “jakes”) can breed, the older males usually outcompete them.

A male will gather together a few (rarely more than four) hens with which he will mate. Rather than defending territory from other males, he defends his harem. Gobbling usually starts in March in Virginia, reaching its peak in May and ending by mid-June, according to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service (VFWIS).

After breeding, the toms leave, and each female goes off to have her young, tending to nest in the same area every year. Preferred locations are those that are sheltered and not easily accessed — at the base of a tree, in well-developed understory of the forest, under a brush pile, in thick shrubbery, and sometimes in open hayfields. The hen finds or scratches a shallow depression on the ground, about one foot in diameter, lining it with grass or dead leaves that are already at the site. In the Piedmont, hens lay their eggs from late March through May, with the young hatching out from the middle of June through August; in mountain areas, young may hatch out through September.

Hens are secretive and skittish when nesting and may abandon the nest if disturbed, especially early on. They lay one clutch of four to 17 eggs a year, each 1.9 to 2.7 inches long. The eggs are light yellowish brown and evenly marked with brown spots. Incubation takes 25 to 31 days.

Other turkey facts

Local subspecies and range: The eastern wild turkey is the most numerous and most hunted of North America’s six subspecies of wild turkey. According to VFWIS, this subspecies is “fairly common to common in some bottom lands, uncommon to fairly common inland, and uncommon at higher elevations;” it is “rare” over the coastal plain, particularly in the extreme southeast.

Home range: Turkeys can travel more than five square miles during the year but, according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, often restrict their movements within 100-200 acres during the winter and nesting season.

Size (adults): 34 inches long (females) to 48 inches long (males); 12-25 pounds.

Food: Turkeys forage on the ground or in low bushes or tree branches, by pecking and scratching. Adults eat a wide variety of food, with plant foods — including wild seeds and nuts (especially acorns, cherries, beechnuts and ash seeds), fruits and sedges, along with some domestic crops — making up 90 percent of their diet. Many species of insects, and the occasional small reptile, fill out the rest. Poults (juvenile turkeys) eat mostly insects, but also some berries and seeds.

Predators: Among wildlife, red fox, gray fox, dog, coyote, bobcat, black bear, fisher, opossum and great horned owl. (Human hunters kill 51-100 turkeys each year in Rappahannock County, according to VFWIS.) Turkeys, which can run up to 25 miles per hour and fly up to 55 miles per hour, prefer to run from predators rather than fly.

Wild turkey vs. domestic: The wild turkey differs from the domestic, which originally came from wild stock, in several ways. Most obvious is that the wild turkey is slimmer, has longer legs and has rust-colored tail tips, while the domestic turkey’s tail tips are white.

Turkey conservation: The number of wild turkeys had dwindled to only 30,000 in the early 1900s, from hunting and loss of habitat. Through restocking and conservation, that number has risen to more than 7 million today, according to NWTF. 

Brooding continues until the young are about 4 weeks old, when they can fly up to 50 feet and begin roosting in trees, according to VFWIS. Young turkeys start to become more independent at about 3 months old, foraging on their own but still under the care of their mothers. According to All About Birds, newly hatched chicks follow their mother, who feeds them for a few days until they learn to find food on their own. By late summer, the females and their new broods often start banding together and stay together through the most of the winter, breaking away from the group in late winter to breed. Winter groups can exceed 200 turkeys, according to All About Birds.

As with most birds, the males sport the more colorful attire. Iridescence on their otherwise mostly brown feathers make them sparkle in hues ranging from green to red to gold. When courting, the male puffs up his feathers and fans out his tail, making him even more impressive. The female is a drab brown, which helps to camouflage her from predators.

The heads of wild turkey are featherless; the color can vary somewhat, but basically the head and throat are red in males and blue in females. Adult males sport red caruncles — fleshy outgrowths, including a “snood” that covers and hangs down from the top of the beak and a “wattle” (dewlap) that dangles from the throat. These become engorged with blood when males are excited, as during courtship. The head and wattling on males are larger than on females. According to the VFWIS, caruncles can be “quite changeable” in color, and the head “may be brilliant red in full strut, but will turn blue if alarmed.”

Males also sport beards, made of bristly modified feathers that are, on average, about nine inches long and hang down from their chest. A small number of females may also develop beards. Males also have  “spur” — a sharp, horn-like bony growth that can grow up to two inches long — on the back of their powerful legs that can be used in defense. Females’ spurs are much less developed, usually appearing as mere buds.

A few days after the toms had strolled down my driveway, I saw about a dozen wild turkeys foraging in a field in F.T. Valley, along Route 231. I only got a quick look, but they appeared to be females, perhaps a group that had spent the winter together and had not yet broken up. I thought how much fun it would have been to see the boys on my driveway meet the girls in the valley, but that would be a long hike for either.

(For more on the natural history of wild turkeys, see my Dec. 2, 2010, column.)

© 2015 Pam Owen

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