Wild Turkey: Species Behavior and Habits
When discussing Turkey behavior and habits, we need to take subspecies and locale in account, for the distinct differences between them have significant impact. If you take time to ask fellow hunters for their observations, you will find many that are surprising. Though not based in scientific fact they may be very helpful. The following are a few of those I have heard.
"Turkeys don't like to cross water."
"Turkeys don't like thickets. They prefer open areas which they can see danger's approach easily."
"Turkeys tend to walk uphill and fly downhill as walking down hill is difficult for them."
Turkeys mate in the spring. Tom Turkeys routinely use strut zones at this time. A strut zone is a place in the woods or field that a tom turkey likes to strut. Strut zones are places he likes to show off and display himself. Each Tom may establish as many as six strut zones. If undisturbed tom turkeys will visit these in a regular pattern and times. Morning strut zones tend to be on eastern exposures in lieu of the morning sun; Evening strut zones visa-versa.
The reproductive cycle for the wild turkey usually begins in late February or early March in its southernmost habitats but not until April in northern states such as Vermont and other areas across the northern edge of turkey range (This varies somewhat between subspecies). Breeding behavior is triggered primarily by the increasing day length in spring, but unusually warm or cold spells may accelerate or slow breeding activity. Likewise, the cycle is complete with the hatching of poults by June or as late as midsummer further north. Birds that renest may bring off broods as late as August.
Breeding behavior is triggered primarily by the increasing day length in spring, but unusually warm or cold spells may accelerate or slow breeding activity. This behavior begins while birds may still be in large winter flocks prior to separating as individuals or into small groups.
The basic social organization of these flocks is determined by a pecking order with the most dominate bird at the top and the least on the bottom. Males and females have separate hierarchies, and there can be pecking orders within and between flocks of the same sex; while stable pecking orders within flocks of the same sex seem to be common to all wild turkey subspecies. Turkeys have home ranges, not territories where individuals defend space within a given habitat from other members of the same sex. Instead they fight for dominance recognizing individuals within the pecking order while sharing overlapping home ranges.
Courtship behavior patterns include gobbling and strutting by the males. Gobbling attracts hens to males who court the hens by strutting. If the hen selects the gobbler for mating she crouches, which signals the male to copulate The first peak of gobbling activity is associated with the beginning of the breeding period when gobblers are searching for hens. The second peak occurs a few weeks later, when most hens begin incubation.
Hens become secretive while searching for a site to nest prior to laying eggs. Laying hens may continue to feed with other hens and mate with gobblers, but this social activity will be away from the nest site.
Nests are shallow depressions formed mostly by scratching, squatting, and laying eggs rather than by purposeful construction. The arrangement of twigs and leaves is minimal in sites chosen for their moderately dense understory which still allows the hen a view but gives protection from avian predators.
Laying a clutch of 10 - 12 eggs takes about 2 weeks and unincubated eggs are usually covered with leaves. Continuous incubation begins about the time the last egg is laid at which time the hen no longer tries to conceal her eggs when she leaves for short periods to feed.
The hen will incubate for 26 - 28 days sitting quietly and moving about once an hour to turn the eggs. Actual hatching begins with pipping, thepoult rotating within the shell, chipping a complete break around the large end of the egg. Hens respond to the pipping sounds by making soft clucks at random, a form of communication which begins to imprint the poults to the hen as she inspects the eggs and turns them. Damp poults clumsily free themselves from the egg but are fully dry and coordinated so they can follow the hen away from the nest within 12 to 24 hours after hatching. This vocal communication between hen and poults still in the eggs is an important part of the hatching process and is critical to survival of the young.
Imprinting is a special form of learning which facilitates the rapid social development of the poults into adults. It's a strong social bond between the hen and her offspring which occurs up to 24 hours after hatching. Imprinting describes the rapid process by which the young poults learn to recognize their species, essential for their survival. It happens only at this time and cannot be reversed.
Day-old poults learn to respond to the hen's putt or alarm call before leaving the nest and respond by freezing or running to hide beneath her. The hen, clucking almost continually, slowly leads her poults away from the nest until within a few hours her pace is more normal. By now the poults have formed into a brood group that is constantly feeding by pecking at food items, a behavior learned from their mother.
By the second day out of the nest, wild turkey poults are performing most of the characteristic feeding, movement, and grooming behavior patterns. By the end of the first week they are regularly dusting with the hen. By their second week they are able to fly short distances and at the third week they are able to roost in low trees with the hen. The ability to roost in trees is an important event in the brood's development as it removes them from the danger of ground predators. Roosting occurs at the beginning of another phase of rapid development, the acquisition of juvenile plumage and a change in diet from predominantly insects to a higher percentage of plant matter. This phase of behavioral and physical development is accompanied by a sharp decline in poult mortality. Poults that survive the first six weeks have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood.
At age 14 weeks, male and female poults are distinguishable by body size and plumage. They have formed separate pecking orders although still dominated by the hen until all males have finally left the brood group to form their own social units.
By fall, the pecking order of the sibling groups has been established and the young flocks are ready to enter the social organization of the surrounding population. The body growth of juveniles ends by the beginning of winter when the flocks, separated by age and sex class, settle into winter range.
Requirements and Preferences (with Special
Attention to Diet)
Habitat is the Key to Wildlife Survival, Words most Sportsmen have heard in the past! More than just key words and tricky phrases, This concept is the crux of Modern Wildlife Management. All species require five basic things in their habitat and Turkey are no exception. These five are Food, Water, Shelter, Space, and Arrangement. They make sense to each of us I'm sure, as we need these ourselves. So let's continue with more detail....
To have plenty of turkeys to hunt, turkey must have a good dispersion of its seasonal habitat needs. In other words, in good turkey range there should be certain habitat for nesting, another type of habitat for the rearing of the young, and different habitats for fall and winter. If you don't have all these kinds of habitat on a particular piece of property, then that property will not be able to maintain as large a number of turkeys as land that does meet these requirements.
To have more turkeys to hunt, you must have good habitat for the hens. During the spring of the year you need quality nesting habitat close to a clover field, for instance, which would be a good food source. And by providing the habitat requirements for the hen, the gobblers will go where the hens are.
If that nesting area and clover region are close to good brood range, then you have an ideal condition for producing plenty of turkeys during the spring. And when you provide good habitat like this for the hens, you're not only participating in good management for future turkey production, but also concentrating the gobblers in a very small area. So if the hunter provides habitat for the hens, he'll have many gobblers to hunt.
Each of the different types of habitat is important. Good nesting habitat may be a broomsedge field with some briar thickets. Nesting habitat needs to be the kind of place where the hen can make her nest on the ground and feel relatively safe and secure. Ideally, nesting areas will feature low, herbaceous vegetation with scattered brush. And a field of clover next to this nesting region will yield excellent food for the turkeys and for the young poults.
Wildlife Managers learned through research that the first two weeks of the poults' lives is when they are most susceptible to predators. Therefore, to ensure future generations of turkeys, there should be a good brood site close to the nesting area and the clover patch. This brood site should contain grasses and shrubs that are about knee high. Then the poults can move through the low grass unprotected, invisible to predators, and the hen can stick her neck up and look over the grass for predators. If the hen has this type of habitat to raise her poults in, she will raise a much higher percentage of them than if she has to expose them in an open pasture or field.
Yet another limiting factor to good turkey range is the presence of predators. By removing a good number of the predators of the wild turkey, you can increase the survival rate of the poults and of the developed birds.
One of the worst predators on the small poults is free ranging dogs, which destroy turkey nests and can greatly impact a turkey population. Through research Wildlife Biologists determined that the free ranging dog in many regions is the number one predator of turkeys. By removing these dogs, we can increase the numbers of turkeys that survive each year. And free ranging dogs in turkey range have another disadvantage, because, as any hunter knows, when dogs start barking toms quit gobbling.
The raccoon is another predator that destroys many turkey nests and kills young poults. Not only will raccoons wreak havoc on the turkey population, but raccoons are also a menace for the hunters who plant chufa (a grass that produces a nutlike root) for turkeys. Raccoons will get in, dig up a chufa patch, and eat the chufa that was intended for turkeys.
Chufa is important to turkeys, because it can be utilized during the fall and winter for turkey food when other sources of food may be scarce. If the raccoons get into the chufa patches, they can quickly deplete the supply of winter food that the hunter has planted for the turkey. So one of the best methods to increase the number of turkeys on a piece of property is to reduce the number of predators that are depleting the turkey population.
After providing good habitat and food for the hens and young poults and removing predators, hunters can further increase the number of turkeys on their hunting lands by controlled burning. If you control burn during the winter in a pine forest, the burning releases the nutrients in the soil and will create a generous green up in the spring. Gobblers like to hang around a pine woods that has been burned, and feed on those young, green shoots. But just setting the pine woods on fire in the winter time is not an effective way to control burn. Hunters should work with their departments of conservation and forestry commissions to know when, where, and how to burn for the best effect.
To determine just how important good habitat is, Biologists studied turkeys in mountainous areas and along coastal plains to try to determine home range. They learned that in mountainous regions, a turkey home range of 5,000 acres is not uncommon, whereas in the coastal plains where the habitat is better, a turkey's home range may only be 1,000 acres.
Habitat Info For Particular Subspecies
Eastern wild turkeys are found in 38 states and one Canadian province. It is the most abundant of the five subspecies found in the U.S. and Canada.
Merriam's wild turkeys occur in 15 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Within its suspected historic range in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, the Merriam's was relatively isolated from the other subspecies of wild turkey. Current evidence supports the hypothesis that it was a relative newcomer to western American wildlife when the Europeans discovered it. It has been successfully stocked beyond its suspected natural range in the Rocky Mountains and outside of the mountains into Nebraska, Washington, California, Oregon and other areas. Merriam's are found in some habitat areas that, if altered by timber harvesting, overgrazing or development, populations may be lost. Their normal range receives annual rainfall amounts averaging between 15 and 23 inches. Some Merriam's migrate from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to higher elevations in summer for breeding and nesting and return to winter in the lower elevations. Movement distances vary but more than 40 mile movements are not unusual. Movements may differ annually and geographically, depending on snow conditions. Movements from wintering areas occur between mid-March and mid-April. Merriam's wild turkeys winter in low elevation ponderosa pine habitats and pinyon - juniper woodlands. Snow depth and duration, food availability, and the presence of suitable roost trees are key factors that determine where turkeys winter or if populations will survive. Snow conditions may force turkeys into riparian habitats well below the conifer zone. Here turkeys may use cottonwoods for roosting and may become dependent upon human related sources of food such as barnyards, grainfields, silage pits or feedlots.
The Gould's wild turkey is currently not hunted in the United States, but occurs in small populations in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. In the U.S. Gould's turkeys are found in the Animas and San Luis mountains of New Mexico and in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona. Mountain ranges where Gould's are found orient north and south with elevations ranging from 4,500 to 6,500 feet in the U.S. and over 9,800 feet in Mexico. Turkey habitat can be rough with steep and rocky canyons. Gould's turkey range in the U.S. has a continental climate characterized by wide daily and annual fluctuations in distinct seasonal changes with hot summers and mild winters. Average annual precipitation is 18 inches, more than half falling between July and September. About 10 inches of snow fall in winter accounts for the rest. In Mexico climate conditions are about the same as those found in the U.S., however, winters are colder and there is more snow in the higher mountains. The Gould's turkey has been studied the least and, as a result, has the smallest amount of information available about it. However, new studies are underway in Arizona, New Mexico, as well as Mexico to help us learn more about this unique subspecies.
The Florida wild turkey, also, referred to as the Osceola, is found only on the peninsula of Florida. This particular subspecies was first described in 1890 by W.E.D. Scott who named it for the famous Seminole Chief, Osceola, who led his tribe against the Americans in a 20-year war beginning in 1835. Florida is the only state with a native population of the Florida wild turkey. Its coloration's and behavior are ideal for the flat pine woods, oak and palmetto hammocks, and swamp habitats of Florida.
Turkey Feeding Studies have revealed these birds are extremely opportunistic feeders. On one particular survey, Researchers found that turkeys had used 354 species of plants and 313 species species of invertebrates. Knowing what Wild Turkeys eat in the region you intend to hunt them is very helpful. The following charts provide information obtained in Wildlife Management surveys on Wild Turkey fare by region. Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, West.
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Spring & Fall
buckwheat, alfalfa, big bluestem*, clover (white, red), annual ryegrass, crabgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, bird foot trefoil, deer tongue, perennialrye grass, corn, foxtail, ladino clover, hairy vetch, millet, indian grass*, oats, latcho flatpea, orchard grass, little bluestem*, red fescue, red top, timothy, sorghum, wheat, soybeans, winter rye, sudan grass, swit grass*
autumn olive, bittersweet*, blackberry*, crabapple*, rugosa rose, bluebeech*, dogwood* (flowering, silky, grey, red osier), elderberry*, hazelnut*, hawthorn*, honeysuckle*, japanese barberry, hophornbeam*, staghorn sumac*, jet bead, Viburnum species* (highbush cranberry, multiflora rose blackhaw, maple-leaf), juniper*, spicebush*, wild grape*, winterberry*, witch hazel*
oaks* (white, red, pin), beech*, basswood*, black cherry*, black gum*, white ash*, black locust*, chinese chestnut, hemlock*, hickory*, mountainash*, norway spruce, white pine*, white spruce*, wild apple*,
* Native species
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Spring & Fall
alfalfa, browntop, millet, annual ryegrass, birdsfoot trefoil, canadawildrye*, barley, bluestem* (big, little), Kentucky bluegrass, bergamot*,buckwheat, lespedeza, black-eyed susan*, clover (alsike, red, ladino, white),milo, broom sedge*, perennial ryegrass, junegrass*, corn, sand dropseed*,ox-eye daisy*, indiangrass*, smooth brome, panicgrass*, oats, soybeans,sideoats grama*, orchardgrass, sunflower, sorghum, switchgrass*, timothy,wheat
crabapple*, chokeberry*, autumn olive, dogwood*, russian olive, bearberry*,hawthorn*, serviceberry*, bittersweet*, hazelnut*, wild rose*, buckthorn*,mountain ash*, elderberry*, Rubus*, greenbrier*, sumac*, honeysuckle (bush),Viburnum*, ninebark*, wild grape*, pin cherry*, wild plum*, sand cherry*,snowberry*, spicebush*, Vaccinium*, winterberry*
beech*, black walnut*, black ash*, black cherry*, red cedar*, blackgum*, hickory*, red pine, black locust*, oaks*, white pine*, chinese chestnut,cottonwood*, hackberry*, norway spruce, sassafrass*, sugar maple*, whiteash*, white cedar*, white spruce, wild apple*
* Native Species
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Spring
chufa, buckwheat, alfalfa, bahiagrass, clover (alyce,ladino), beggerweed*,browntop, millet, corn, bermuda grass, cowpeas, birdsfoot trefoil, lespedeza,blackberry*, millet (cattail, dove proso,foxtail, japanese), clover (red,white), dallisgrass, partridge pea, deer tongue*, sorghum, egyptian wheat,soybeans, hairy vetch, sunflower, ironclay peas, milo, orchardgrass, Paspalum*,peanuts, switchgrass*
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Fall
clover (ladino, crimson), birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa, wheat, clover(red, white), austrian winterpea, oats, hairy vetch, clover (Louisianarye subterranean, arrow leaf), ryegrass, orchardgrass, cowpeas, deer tongue,elbon rye, lespedeza, sorghum, sweet clover, wrens abruzzi rye
autumn olive, blackberry*, american beau berry*, dogwood*(flowering,silky,grey), chinquapin*, american holly*, rabapple*, bittersweet*, hawthorn*(parsley,engleman,warner),japanese barberry, choke cherry*, lespedeza, deciduous holly*, Vaccinium*(huckleberry, gallberry, deerberry, sparkleberry), sumac*(staghorn, smooth,wingrib), dwarf live oak*, Eieagnus, Virburnum*(arrowood, blackhaw,cranberrybush), greenbrier*, honeysuckle, mountain ash*, wild grape*, mulberry*,wild plum*, myrtle oak*, privet, redbud*, running oak*, spicebush*, yaupon*
black gum*, beech*, american elm*, oaks*(white, red, water,willow,laurel,cherrybark, live, pin,shumard, nuttall), black cherry*, ash*, persimmon*,bald cypress*, black locust*, sawtooth oak, cabbage palm*, chinese chestnut,hackberry*, hickory*, longleaf pine*, magnolia*, red maple*, sweet pecan*,tupelo*
* Native species
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Spring
alfalfa, bee plant*, brome (meadow, smooth), bluestem* (big), orchardgrass,buffaloberry*, vetch*, candytuft*, watercress*, dropseed*, hea grass*,geranium*, wildrye (basin, Russian), giant ragweed*, yellow sweet clover,mexican hat*, mountain mahogany*, needlegrass*, perennial wheat, smallburnett*, stickseed*, western yarrow*, wild buckwheat*, wild flax*, wildsunflower*
HERBACEOUS SPECIES - Fall
barley, bluegrass*, dandelion*, bluestem* (big, silver), oats, buckwheat,yellow sweet clover*, california poppy*, clover (red, white dutch), filgree,foxtail fescue, lewis flax*, milk thistle*, milkvetch, mountain rye, orchardgrass, panic grass*, popcorn flower*, quaking grass*, sleepy-grass*, smoothbrome*, soft chess*, timothy*, wheat*
buffaloberry*, autumn olive, bladdersenna, choke cherry*, currant*,california buckwheat*, hawthorn*, elderberry*, carayna, russian olive,kinnikinnik*, dogwood*, serviceberry*, mounatin ash*, fourwing, saltbush*,wild rose*, nanking cherry, gooseberry*, snowberry*, indian squawbush*,sumac*, japanese barberry, wild plum*, lilac, oregon grape*, poison oak*,quail bush*, Rubus*, sandberry, thimble berry*, toyon*,
oak*, blue spruce*, austrian pine, ponderosa pine*, cottonwood*, douglasfir*, juniper*(Rocky mtn., Utah), green ash*, hybrid poplar, pinyon pine*,red cedar*, scotch pine, siberian elm, wild apple*, willow*
Questions? Comments? Post other Turkey Hunters at the Wild Turkey Network Message Board!
This information tied in with my last provides us with an even larger picture of this Magnificent Bird. Next week we will tie all these together with the goal of filling our Turkey Tags in mind! Until Then Good Luck and God Bless.......Stu Keck
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