Wild Turkeys, as American as Red, White, and Blue

With four Eastern wild turkeys constantly roaming the fields around my house this year, naturally some questions came to mind. Do turkey “families” stay together? In an anthropomorphic sense, what’s their family life like? How do you tell a female from a male? What do they do when they’re not feasting on insects and seeds in the fields?

A wild turkey “family” takes a break on a pile of deadwood near Goldsboro, Maryland. Photo by Chris Knauss

According to Matthew Miller (2017), director of science communications for the Nature Conservancy, “basically, turkeys of a feather flock together.” Miller says hen turkeys congregate in flocks consisting of females and their offspring. Male turkeys form their own flocks, although young males (jakes) stay with their mother through the fall. With that many eyes looking about, there’s safety in numbers, especially considering the wild turkey’s exceptional eyesight. Since their eyes are on the side of their heads, by turning their heads slightly, they have a 360-degree field of vision (Miller, 2018). If you see some turkeys, they probably also see you.

While turkeys can see well during the day, just like us they can’t see all that well at night. To find a safe place away from ground predators during the dark hours, they fly into the lower limbs of trees at sundown and will move upward until they find a suitable spot to rest for the night. If you scare them during the day, sometimes they’ll take flight, but usually they’ll just scamper away on the ground.

Turkeys not only gobble (mostly males in the spring), they also squabble a lot. While they may look like easy-going birds, when they’re flocked together they’re also in the process of establishing dominance. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, turkeys have overlapping home ranges, not territories (NWTF, n.d.) The distinction is that a territory is a defended area while a home range is the area that an individual uses for its normal activities, such as food gathering, resting, mating, and caring for young (Potts & Lewis, 2014). Flock life is full of quarrels, dominance displays, and some fighting as well, all part of the process of establishing a pecking order, which eventually helps determine breeding privileges in the spring.

Turkeys can be habitual, especially in the fall, and the foursome I’ve observed seem to follow a regular feeding path. They pickup bugs and seeds from the ground with quick, keen head bobs, all the while remaining vigilant to the threat of predators. Most of the time they’re eating and foraging. Sometimes they take a break from eating to take advantage of some bare dirt under a red cedar tree where they dust themselves to maintain their plumage. The dusting tends to be a flock activity (NWTF, n.d.). Turkeys are omnivores. They seem to really enjoy the many crickets in our fields. They also eat grasshoppers, spiders, snails, salamanders, and slugs. All that protein helps them grow rapidly after their birth in late May and early June. The three offspring in the group I see are already nearly full size.

According to The Cornell Lab (n.d.), in the fall, winter, and early spring, turkeys will also scratch the forest floor to find acorns from oak trees. They also feast upon other seeds and berries, such as American beech nuts, hickory nuts, and wild black cherries. Like most birds, they ingest grit to help digest food.

To the untrained eye, a turkey’s gender can be difficult to determine. Adults are definitely more distinctive with the males rather easily recognized by their larger size, reddish head, red throat and wattles, and more colorful feathers with iridescent red, green, copper, bronze, and gold sheens. Differentiating jakes and hens takes more intent observation. A couple of defining characteristics for jakes are a small spur on each leg (less than ½ inch) and a short beard (about two to three inches). The beard is a mass of fibrous bristles hanging from the breast plumage. The beard of adult males can reach as long as 10 inches. Unlike hens and gobblers, the central tail feathers of jakes often extend two to three inches above the rest of their fan.

It’s no secret that Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Franklin wrote: “For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on” (McMillan, n.d.).

There’s no question that the bald eagle is a majestic bird, but I’m with Mr. Franklin on that opinion. The swing point for me: Gobbler heads are colored with variations of red, white, and blue.

Chris Knauss is a Maryland Master Naturalist who teaches communication at Wilmington University. He resides near Goldsboro, Maryland.

References

McMillan, J. (n.d.). The Arms of the United States: Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey. Retrieved from http://www.americanheraldry.org/pages/index.php?n=MMM.Turkey.

Miller, M. (2017). The Fascinating Fall Behavior of Wild Turkeys. Retrieved from https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/11/21/the-fascinating-fall-behavior-of-wild-turkeys/

Miller, J. (2018). Wild Turkeys. Retrieved from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/reports/Wildlife%20Damage%20Management%20Technical%20Series/Wild-Turkeys-WDM-Technical-Series.pdf

NWTF. (n.d.) Wild turkey behavior. Retrieved from https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/behavior

Potts, J. R., & Lewis, M. A. (2014). How do animal territories form and change? Lessons from 20 years of mechanistic modelling. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 281(1784), 20140231. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.0231

The Cornell Lab. All About Birds. (n.d.) Wild Turkey, Life History. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/lifehistory

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