Turkey footprints in the snow. You can’t tell by the photo, but they’re quite large!
One morning before sunrise, I heard the strangest sound. It was a gurgling noise, medium-pitched, definitely from an animal . . . and it sounded like it was coming from up in the trees. Wondering for a moment if the neighbors had gotten chickens, it came to me. It wasn’t a gurgle, it was a gobble! Turkeys.
Last fall wild turkeys were everywhere – or at least that’s how it seemed here in my neighborhood in Marshfield. Our property borders woods and wetlands, so we see all sorts of creatures pass through. At first the turkeys roamed in flocks of up to 50 – yes, fifty! – but the numbers decreased dramatically as the season wore on. Given the bold way they crossed even the busiest roads, I imagine the thinning was due as much to jaywalking as predation.
We didn’t see much of them as winter began, but after the first major snowfall in January, they were back. Perhaps they were here all along, lying low. Perhaps the snow drove them out of their natural habitat and onto the roads – the only bare ground available. I was often amused to see them racing up the street ahead of my car — their own version of our annual Turkey Trot?
By early March, the turkeys had taken up residence in our backyard. We fed the (other) birds religiously this winter, so the snow under the feeders became littered with black sunflower shells. The turkeys discovered this and henceforth our yard became a regular stop on their morning rounds. They’d hang out on the snow drifts (and later, ice mounds) below the feeders, and then eventually move to the small spot of bare ground in the front yard, rooting around and leaving us “gifts” on the lawn.
The wild turkey is a large bird. Mature males weigh in the range of 16-24 pounds, with females typically half that size. Both have long scaly legs. The male has a coarse hairy “beard” protruding from its chest.
You might not recognize a wild turkey right away because it doesn’t quite resemble our iconic Thanksgiving mascot. It’s more streamlined, less colorful. Wild turkeys are black or bronze, with white bars on their wings. Their heads are bluish gray, except in certain moods when they turn red. However when a male displays its plumage, it’s quite familiar – puffed out and iridescently colorful, with red, green, copper and gold. (The females are duller in color.)
A wild turkey surveys the snowy landscape, in search of sustenance.
Wild turkeys gather in flocks, where there is a determined pecking order. Certain males (toms or gobblers) and females (hens) assume dominant roles, while others have fewer privileges. For example, the more mature males typically are first in line for mating, crowding the juveniles (jakes) out of the way.
Speaking of mating . . . ‘tis the season right now! In our area, wild turkeys begin to feel that primal urge in mid-March. It continues through the spring, peaking in late April or early May. Turkeys court in groups, the toms mating with as many hens as they can. First a tom will gobble to announce its presence. Then a hen will yelp in response, to reveal its location. Then a tom will display — puffing out its feathers, spreading its tail, and dragging its wings – strutting all the while. They find each other and the dance begins. (You can find videos on YouTube if you really want to know . . . )
A hen lays eggs after her first congress of the season (she may mate more than once). First she creates a nest on the ground in a wooded area. The nest is not very deep – just a shallow depression that she lines with leaves. In it, she will lay an average of 12-15 eggs, one per day, and then sit with them, occasionally turning them, until they have incubated fully (27 or 28 days). Fewer than half of the hatchlings survive. Cold wet weather and predators such as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and other rodents, snakes, and hawks keep the numbers low.
By early June, the hens and their broods are out and about. The young stay with their mothers throughout the summer and into the fall – generally for four to five months, although the females may stick around longer. Due to predation, only about half of the chicks will survive their first six months.
Wild turkeys enjoy a wide variety of foods. The young feed primarily on insects, while the older birds consume acorns, nuts, seeds, berries, tubers and other plant materials. You may even see them snacking on skunk cabbage.
Wild turkeys are active during the day, when their vision is good. At night, they fly up into the relative safety of tall trees, to roost. Have you seen wild turkey in flight? They are not graceful birds. “Ungainly” might be the best descriptor. Typically they fly close to the ground, and for short distances (up to a quarter mile). However they are capable of flying 55mph. They can run about half that speed.
Mass Wildlife publishes an excellent website with information about many of the creatures who make their home in our state (see links below.) A full page is dedicated to “Preventing Conflicts with Wild Turkeys,” which gives you some indication of the trouble they can cause. In short, it’s best not to feed them. They have access to plenty of natural food sources, but if you let them become accustomed to your own supply, they may become reliant on it. Moreover, they will make a nuisance of themselves – damaging your property (peck, peck, peck!) and leaving behind waste.
If you encounter a wild turkey, Mass Wildlife recommends that you maintain the upper hand. Once a turkey knows it can intimidate you, it will not back down. Turkeys classify other animals based on their behavior, so your actions will determine where you fit into their pecking order. Act male – be bold and don’t let them bully you. If you behave more submissively, they may display at you, peck at or follow you, or harass you with the intent to mate. The idea is amusing, but it might not be fun in real life.
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com