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Wildlife Species Guide

Wild Turkeys in Nebraska
Wild Turkeys The Turkey's Year Monitoring The Flocks
Challenge of the Hunt Sex Identification Age Determination

The Turkey's Year

The release of wild turkeys in the Pine Ridge and the expansion of their range throughout the state have given Nebraskans many chances to see wild turkeys. Spring breeding displays and the excited gobbling of toms, hens with poults feeding along roadsides in early summer and the gathering of scattered bands into larger flocks in late fall and winter not only provide opportunities for hunters but also for wildlife watchers.
A year in the life of a wild turkey might begin in late winter on a Pine Ridge creekbottom, in the woodlands along a central Nebraska river drainage or in a hardwood forest along the Missouri River. As the days grow longer, the lengthening daylight period triggers breeding behavior first characterized by the strutting and gobbling of adult males. mating
As spring approaches, males gobble and engage in mock and real battles to establish dominance and social rank

The gobbler’s vibrant, iridescent plumage and its courtship display are striking. The plumage of the adult Merriam’s turkey includes a variety of colors -- red, green, copper, bronze and gold. Feathers on the tom’s breast appear jet black. Distinctive barring on the lower primary feathers (the main flight feathers along the outer edge of the wing) and the light-tipped tail feathers and tail coverts (the shorter feathers covering the base of the long tail feathers) add contrasting accents.

The Merriam’s upper wing coverts are chestnut to dark tan. The tail feathers, tipped with white or light buff, are barred with chestnut and brown with a darker band near the end of the feather. Tail and upper tail covert feathers of eastern, hybrid and Rio Grande turkeys are usually tipped with chestnut and cinnamon.

The feathers in the tail fan of a mature gobbler are all about the same length; juvenile birds have noticeably longer feathers in the center of the fan. Throughout a bird’s lifetime, feathers are replaced in four molts, including an annual molt, a continuous and complete replacement of feathers from spring to fall every year. Unlike some waterfowl, molting turkeys never lose the ability to fly. The head and neck of the male is scantily feathered compared to the female, and bumps called caruncles, the snood (a protuberance hanging over the beak) and the dewlap (a fleshy protuberance that hangs from the neck) take on a brilliant, deep red color during the breeding display. The skin at the crown of the head and around the eyes is white or light blue.

A bristle or filament beard extends from the midline of the gobbler’s upper breast. Although usually considered a group of modified feathers, the beard is not lost in molting, and it continues to grow throughout a turkey’s life. Turkey hunters often find the longest beards in fall, since the beard is easily damaged in spring fighting. A few hens also have beards, usually hinner and shorter than male beards, and the presence or absence of a beard is not a reliable indication of a bird’s sex.

The breast feathers of the hen are fringed in white, making hens appear frosted or light gray. The hen’s head and neck have more feathering than those the male, and adult hens are smaller than adult males.

Legs of adult hens and gobblers are pink, but the legs of younger birds are brownish-gray. Both male and female young have small "button" spurs, but the males’ spurs continue to grow, becoming pointed, curved and sharp. The size, shape and length of the spur can be used to determine the age of a mature gobbler.

mating Mating occurs whan a hen crouches and a tom steps onto her back The wild turkey is the largest upland gamebird in North America. Adult toms taken in Nebraska’s fall hunting seasons average 18 pounds. Juvenile toms average 12 pounds, adult hens 10 pounds and juvenile hens about nine pounds. Gobblers weighing more than 25 pounds are unusual. The 10 heaviest Merriam’s gobblers in the National Wild Turkey Federation’s 1990 records, for example, averaged 26.8 pounds. Hybrid gobblers can be heavier.

As spring approaches, gobblers spend more time each day gobbling and engaging in mock and real battles to establish dominance and social rank. Researchers have identified at least 28 distinct calls in the wild turkey vocabulary, but the gobble is the only call produced with fixed intensity, and it can be heard for more than a mile in low wind conditions.

The male courtship display is slow and deliberate. Body feathers are held erect and the wing primaries are spread and extended, often dragging on the ground. The light-colored tips of the tail fan form a crescent over the bird’s dark back, and the tom’s brightly colored head and neck are pulled back against the erect back feathers.

Pacing back and forth with two or three quick steps, the gobbler emits a low-pitched "puffing" or "humming" sound accompanied by an audible "clicking" or "snapping" of the feathers. The strut is momentarily delayed when the gobbler quickly extends his head and neck forward and issues a loud, ringing gobble call. Nearby gobblers often excitedly echo the call. Gobbling activity usual peaks at the beginning of the breeding season and again when most hens are incubating.

Mating begins when the hen assumes a characteristic crouching pose. A strutting gobbler might circle a crouched hen for several minutes before stepping onto her back. Toms tread with both feet or lightly strike the hen’s back and wings with one foot before copulation. The entire sequence, from crouching to copulation, takes four or five minutes.

In Nebraska, most hens are engaged in nesting by mid- to late April. A nest usually is little more than a slight depression in pine-needle duff or forest litter, and clutch size averages 11 cream-colored, lightly speckled eggs. Clutches of up to 22 eggs have been found in Nebraska. Egg-laying usually requires up to two weeks, and continuous incubation begins when the final egg is laid. Incubation lasts about 28 days, and in Nebraska, hatching peaks in the first weeks in June.

Incubating hens leave their nests for short periods, usually in midmorning or late afternoon. If a nest is abandoned or destroyed, renesting sometimes occurs. A study of Merriam’s turkeys reported a 27 percent renesting rate; other studies found lower renesting rates among juvenile hens.

Hatching begins when poults "pip," cracking a break around the large end of the egg using an "egg tooth" on the upper beak. Pipping can take 24 hours before the poult leaves the egg. A newly hatched poult, covered with yellow and brown natal down, weighs about two ounces.

The first weeks are critical to a poult’s survival, and they must be able to leave the nest 12 to 24 hours after hatching. Poults are vulnerable to predation, and chilling by dew or rainfall can lower body temperature and weaken or kill them. Hens brood their young on the ground until the poults are able to fly to nearby trees, usually within two weeks of hatching.

Broods from several hens form groups, and if undisturbed, the poults and hens form lines of foraging birds. If flushed, poults fly to nearby trees, while the hens continue their excited alarm calls before escaping by running or flying. Constant vocalizations keep broods in contact with hens.

Insects, including grasshoppers,spiders and beetles, dominate the young turkeys’ diet. Merriam’s turkeys are opportunistic feeders, eating both plant and animal foods. Growing poults require large amounts of protein for rapid weight gain during summer. One researcher observed two- to three- week-old poults eating an average of 3,600 food items, mostly insects, every day. During this period, the poults gain as much as a pound every two weeks.

As the young continue to grow, they eat increasing amounts of plant material. Crops collected from birds taken in the fall hunting season in the Pine Ridge show that agricultural grains make up about 80 percent of the diet in some years, but when pine seed is abundant, it is by far the most important component of the turkey’s diet. In other areas of Nebraska, turkeys eat acorns where available.

The daily activities and movements of flocks are directly influenced by habitat quality. In good range, turkeys often remain in a relatively small area. Birds on lower quality sites range over a larger areas. In years of lean nut crops and poor pine seed production, foraging flocks range more widely.

turkey eggs
Most turkey nests are simple depressions in the forest litter. Clutches average 11 eggs.

Early in summer, broods begin to establish a social organization, or "pecking order,"based on dominance, often determined by fiercely contested fights. Combatants use threat displays and staccato trill or rattle calls before progressing to wing striking, kicking and pecking. As a fight continues, they sometimes wrap their necks together and push against each other until the dominant bird is determined.

The pecking order changes as broods merge to form flocks, and by the time the flocks gather into winter concentrations, the complex social organization includes hierarchies and pecking orders for males and females and within and between flocks of the same sex.

The merging of brood flocks offers increased security from predation. Turkeys detect predators and other threats with acute vision and hearing. Wild turkeys have a broader field of vision and a keener ability to discern movement than humans do, but they do not have binocular vision. They compensate by making observations from several locations. Turkeys can detect some color differences.

Their nocturnal vision is poor, and birds forced to leave their roosts after dark have great difficulty. Turkeys usually begin roosting about sundown and leave their roost trees shortly before sunrise. In dark conditions -- overcast, rain, snow or fog -- birds often roost earlier and leave later.

Their hearing is thought to be as acute as that of humans, but they appear to have more sensitivity to high frequencies and to frequency variations more subtle than humans can detect.

When a threat is detected, the hens’ warning calls -- sharp, repeating clucks or "putts" -- spread alarm throughout the flock. Young birds freeze in place, their camouflage plumage blending with the surrounding cover. Older birds usually run or fly to escape. Poults that can fly escape to nearby trees and remain there until the hen attempts to reform the flock with soft, "assembly" clucking.

Adult turkeys are strong, capable flyers for short distances, and flight speeds up to 55 miles per hour have been observed. Their running speed approaches 15 miles per hour for short distances. Alarmed turkeys in hilly terrain often glide to safety.

Turkey predators in Nebraska include bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles. Hunters calling from concealment have observed stalking bobcats and coyotes, and turkeys are sometimes seen crowding excitedly into plum thickets and other escape cover when an avian predator flies overhead. Turkeys occasionally seek shelter under the eaves of farm and ranch buildings when a threat appears overhead.

Other predators of young turkeys or turkey eggs include great horned owls, opossums, raccoons, foxes, skunks, badgers, magpies, crows, snakes, rodents and feral and free-roaming dogs and cats. Although predation can be substantial, it is not a serious threat in good habitat, and turkey populations since about 1900 have increased from the tens of thousands to the millions.

Turkeys, especially in confinement, are susceptible to many diseases and parasites, including blackhead (histomoniasis), fowl cholera, fowl pox, fowl typhoid and coccidiosis. Blackhead is caused by a protozoan parasite that can attack a variety of galliform (chicken-like) birds, but it is especially deadly in wild or domestic turkeys. Parasites commonly found in turkeys include internal roundworms, tapeworms, flukes and external lice, fleas, flies, mites and ticks.

Prevention and control of diseases in wild populations is difficult. Diseases are sometimes introduced by carriers such as pen-raised turkeys. Interbreeding with pen-raised birds can pollute native wild turkey gene pools.

Turkeys are also threatened by feeding and over-protection by humans, activities that encourage artificially high concentrations of birds. Attracting wild turkeys where they can come in contact with domestic poultry increases the opportunities for diseases to be introduced into wild populations. Humans can best help turkey populations survive by establishing natural food areas near escape cover and by protecting existing habitat.

Eight-and-a-half years is the greatest longevity recorded for a wild turkey in Nebraska. Mortality and annual survival studies show marked year-to-year variability between gobblers and hens and between juvenile and adult birds. Tag recoveries and observations indicate an average population turnover of about 45 percent from early winter of one year to the next.
roosting Significant changes in flock movements begin with the arrival of winter when mixed flocks of juvenile birds and hens move to traditional winter roosts where they are joined by gobblers that spent the summer and fall in small scattered groups and larger flocks. Decreasing food supplies, lower temperatures and early snowfall affect movement to winter roost sites. Although natural foods are important throughout the year, grain forms a larger part of the turkey’s diet in winter.


Roosts, in one or several trees,
are often used night after night

Winter roosts often are used year after year. In the Pine Ridge and along the Niobrara River, winter roosts usually are located near livestock feeding sites, often near creeks or other water sources. Prime winter sites can draw birds from long distances, and winter flocks include as many as 300 birds.

Winter flocks spend much of the day feeding, ranging over a wide area if they must. Waste grain in fields and near farms and ranches becomes more important during periods of snow and ice. Deep, fluffy snow restricts their movements, and winter mortality increases during prolonged periods of severe weather. In extreme conditions, heavy snow stops nearly all turkey movement on the ground, and birds fly directly from roost trees to feeding sites.

In spring, as the snow melts from south-facing slopes, turkeys scratch for seeds and other food. As the days lengthen, the wild turkey gobbler’s ringing call is heard again, and the turkeys’ year has come full circle.

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