The Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a large and truly magnificent bird. Adult males, also called "toms" or "gobblers", have red, blue, and white skin on the head during the spring breeding display. They have a long beard of hair-like feathers on their chests and spurs on their legs that can be from 0.5 inches to 1.5 inches in length. Their call is a gobble. The tom has a dark black-brown body. Mature males are about 2.5 feet tall and weigh up to 25 lbs. The average weight is 18 to 20 lbs.
The females (hens) are smaller than toms and weigh 9 to 12 lbs. Hens have a rusty-brown body and a blue-gray head. Less than 10 percent of the female population have a beard, and less than 1 percent have spurs. The hen makes a yelp or clucking noise.
The wild turkey is native to North America. Turkeys were widespread when the Europeans arrived and may have predated the earliest human inhabitants. At the time of European colonization, wild turkeys occupied all of what is currently New York State south of the Adirondacks.
Turkey habitat was lost when forests were cut for timber and turned into small farms. The early settlers and farmers also killed wild turkeys for food all year round, since there were no regulated hunting seasons at that time. The last of the original wild turkeys disappeared from New York in the mid-1840's. By 1850, about 63 percent of the land in New York was being farmed. This trend continued until the late 1800s when about 75 percent of New York State was cleared land.
In the early 1900s farming began to decline. Old farm fields, beginning with those on the infertile hilltops, gradually reverted to brush land and then grew into woodland. By the late 1940s, much of the southern tier of New York was again capable of supporting turkeys. Around 1948, wild turkeys from a small remnant population in northern Pennsylvania crossed the border into western New York. These were the first birds in the state after an absence of 100 years.
The return of these first wild turkeys sparked an interest in restoring them to all of New York. In 1952, a pheasant game farm in Chenango County was converted to raise turkeys; over the next 8 years 3,100 game farm turkeys were released throughout the state. These stockings failed because the game farm birds were not wild enough to avoid predation. Survival of released birds was low, as was natural reproduction. As a result, the populations failed to expand.
In southwestern New York, the wild turkeys from Pennsylvania had established healthy breeding populations and were expanding rapidly. In 1959, a program was begun by the State Conservation Department to live trap wild turkeys in areas where they were becoming abundant for release elsewhere in New York.
Most of the trapping was done in the winter when natural foods are not abundant. A flock of turkeys was lured with piles of corn or other grain. When most of the birds were concentrated on the food pile, the turkeys were captured by shooting a large net over them. Wildlife biologists and technicians put the birds into crates, loaded the crates onto trucks, and drove the birds to new territories that did not have wild turkeys. A typical release consisted of eight to ten females and four to five males. These birds would form the nucleus of a new flock and generally were all that was necessary to establish a population.
Since the first turkeys were trapped in Allegany State Park in 1959, approximately 1,400 birds have been moved within New York. These 1,400 birds have successfully reestablished wild populations statewide. Today, numbers have increased dramatically to an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 birds. In addition, New York has sent almost 700 wild turkeys to the states of Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and the Province of Ontario, helping to reestablish populations throughout the Northeast.
The turkey breeding season begins in early April and continues through early June. During this time, the toms perform courtship displays -- strutting, fluffing their feathers, dragging their wings and gobbling -- all in an effort to attract willing hens. A single tom will mate with many hens.
After mating, the hen goes off by herself to nest. Her loosely formed nest is usually in a wooded area, but can be in brush or an open field. Over a period of two weeks, the hen lays 10 to 12 cream-colored eggs which hatch after 28 days of incubation, usually late May or early June. The hen moves her brood into areas of grassy or herbaceous plants where the young, called poults, can feed on the abundant supply of insects. The poults can fly when they are about two to three weeks old; from then on they will roost in trees at night.
During midsummer, two or more broods will often merge together to form a flock. These flocks range over a wide area and move around frequently in search of food. In late summer and early fall, the flocks begin to spend more and more time in the woodlands feeding on fruits, seeds, nuts, and acorns.
During the winter, turkeys reduce their range, diminish their daily activities and often form large flocks. They frequently spend time in valley farm fields feeding on waste grain and manure spread by the farmers. Spring seeps, which are usually free of ice and snow, are also favorite feeding areas. Turkeys have been known to spend a week or more on a roost when a severe winter storm strikes. Studies have shown that healthy wild turkeys can live up to two weeks without food.
In the spring and summer, adult wild turkeys feed on a wide variety of plants and insects, such as tubers, dragonflies, snails, roots, flowers, fruits and grasshoppers. In the fall, turkeys feed on beechnuts, acorns, grapes, corn and oats. During the winter months, they depend on anything left from the fall, such as green plants, nuts, seeds and fruits; in agricultural areas they depend heavily on waste grain, manure and silage. They are able to scratch through 4 to 6 inches of snow to find food. Turkeys can move long distances to find food, but will stay in a small area if food is locally abundant. Feeding turkeys during harsh winter months is generally not recommended nor needed.
Mortality and Predation
The young poults are preyed upon heavily by mink, weasels, domestic dogs, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and black snakes. Their only defense against predators is the ability to scatter and hide in a frozen state until the mother gives the all-clear signal. The hen will also fake injury (a broken wing) to lead predators away from the young. Sixty to seventy percent of the poults die during the first four weeks after hatching. Adult birds can be preyed upon by foxes, bobcats, coyotes and great-horned owls. Many hens are taken by predators while nesting. More than 6 to 8 inches of soft snow, for over a 5 to 6 week period, can also cause mortality due to starvation.
Wild turkeys are now legally protected as a game species in New York. There are highly regulated spring and fall turkey hunting seasons in the state. The spring season, which takes place during the month of May, is designed to have little or no impact on the population. Only "bearded" birds are legal, which almost totally restricts the take to males. Since this season occurs after most of the hens have been bred, the females continue to nest and produce a new generation of wild turkeys.
The fall season is restricted to certain areas of the state. Both hens and toms may be taken during this season. The season length varies throughout the state, depending on population levels. It starts as early as October 1 and ends as late as mid-November. The fall season bag limit also varies in different areas of the state. The number of turkeys harvested in New York State increased substantially through the early part of this decade, and has now started to level off.
Did You Know?
. . .that turkeys can fly 40 to 55 m.p.h.
. . .that turkeys can swim.
. . .that turkeys can run 12 m.p.h.
. . .turkey restoration in New York was paid for through hunting license sales and special taxes collected on sales of firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment.
More about Wild Turkey:
- Watchable Wildlife: Wild Turkey - Fascinating facts and information about the appearance, habitat preference and behavior of the wild turkey. Best places to view turkeys in the wild.
- Wild Turkey Research - Management programs for the wild turkey are based on sound science. A summary of ongoing research projects is described here.
- Wild Turkey Habitat Management - Habitat requirements for the wild turkey and suggestions for managing your land for this outstanding game bird.
- Wild Turkey Brood Habitat - After the poults hatch they require good brood habitat for survival and growth. Brood habitat generally consists of grasses and forbs that will encourage the insects the poults need as a food supply.
- Wild Turkey Late Summer and Fall Habitat - Late summer and fall habitat is generally the least limiting of a wild turkey's needs in the Northeast. But, it is a time many wild turkey enthusiasts want to attract turkeys to their land.
- Wild Turkey Nesting Habitat - Here are some suggestions for managing some specific habitat types for wild turkey nesting habitat.
- Wild Turkey Winter Habitat - During northern winters wild turkeys need a dependable food source that is close to thermal roosting cover and protected travel corridors.