Take me outside: Season of wild turkeys


Spring is finally coming, and as it does, wild animals are changing their behavior. The earliest migrating birds, such as the red-winged blackbirds, have returned. Resident chickadees are singing their spring song. Soon we'll also be rewarded by the sounds and displays of the eastern wild turkey.

April is the time when male turkeys conduct their courtship behavior to attract females. Unlike the woodcock, which performs an elaborate aerial dance, the tom turkey keeps his feet on the ground in an open field or clearing. He gobbles to announce his presence and draw in a prospect. This sound can be heard from quite a distance.

When a female arrives, the tom spreads his tail in a wide fan and struts around with his chest puffed out and his featherless head held high. His head may be red, white or blue and can change from one color to another in a matter of a few seconds. His dark brown feathers are not as bright, but the outer feathers can flash an iridescent green or bronze sheen, giving him a regal look.

If he has impressed a female, he will drop his wings and tail and stamp his feet in a determined tap dance. This sequence will usually lead to mating.

Wild turkeys are polygamous, so a tom may repeat this behavior with several hens during the breeding season. After mating has occurred the harem will disperse, and the females will create nests on the forest floor. These are simple depressions, usually lined with dried leaves and often at the base of a tree.

Over the course of about two weeks a hen will lay one egg per day in the nest cup. When the clutch of 10-12 eggs is complete she will begin incubating, so the eggs all hatch at the same time. Only the hen incubates -- in fact the male plays no role in caring for the young. When the mating routine is complete, his job is done.

After 28 days of incubation, if all goes well, the eggs will hatch.

In less than 24 hours after they hatch, the chicks, called poults, are ready to follow their mother. They are precocious little birds, very mobile and covered with downy feathers.

In spite of their prompt launching of activity, nearly 60 percent of chicks die within the first two weeks. As ground dwellers they are very susceptible to predators such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, fisher, bobcat and owls. Once they are able to fly, at about 8 to 14 days old, they can roost off the ground and are therefore are much safer.

The poults are well camouflaged with mottled feathers. Getting a glimpse of them when they are very small is rare. As they get older though, it is not uncommon to see a hen and her young pecking along the side of the road. They are looking for grit. They will pick up sand and gravel to take into their gizzard, which is a strong muscular organ that grinds their food. Since birds have no teeth, they need a way to break down their food to begin the digestive process.

Turkeys have a particularly strong gizzard because, except when they are very young and eat mostly insects, their diet is largely composed of large, hard nuts like acorns and beech nuts. They also eat corn, bird seed and various other grains left accidentally or on purpose by humans, which is one of the reasons why they have become so numerous.

It is hard to believe this bird was nearly extinct in the 1930s. It had been eliminated from Massachusetts by 1851 due to overhunting and habitat loss. Attempts to restore wild turkeys to the state were finally successful in 1972-73, when 37 birds from New York were released in Southern Berkshire County. From those birds and others that moved in from surrounding areas, there are now about 18,000 to20,000 wild turkeys spread throughout the state.

Because they are so common, if you are near open fields on the edge of woods, keep your ears and eyes out for these large birds. We may think of Thanksgiving as turkey time, but as the snow vanishes from the fields, this is the season of the gobblers.


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