Wildlife Species Guide
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.
As spring approaches, males gobble and engage in
mock and real battles to establish dominance and social
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.