Wild Turkeys

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

By late October, with the summer birds long gone, I find myself growing ever more appreciative of the birds that stick around, including wild turkeys. With their leathery necks and odd gaits, they are reliably entertaining and interesting subjects.

There are six subspecies of wild turkeys found in North America, with the eastern subspecies, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, being the most prolific. In Vermont there are an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 birds, while in New Hampshire the figure is about 40,000.

Despite their numbers and year-round presence, they aren’t always easy to see. The onset of fall brings about behavioral changes in the birds and, sadly for those of us who enjoy watching them, that can mean fewer sightings than in spring and summer.

As the days grow short and cold and hard frosts become widespread, the grasses where turkeys forage for insects and seeds die off. The need for an alternative food source arises and this is when the hunt for nuts begins. According to Amy Alfieri, Wild Turkey Project Leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, we tend to see less and less of them as the search for mast pulls the birds from the roadsides and fields and into the forests.

The transition from field to forest also makes for different hunting tactics and challenges. In spring, hunters only pursue male turkeys (toms), which are often out in the open, strutting their stuff. “In the spring, the toms like to be seen,” explained Gary Spooner, who teaches hunter safety for the Upper Valley Fish and Game Club. In autumn, hunters can shoot birds of either sex, but good nut years tend to disperse the birds, which can make them harder to locate. Also in fall, mature toms are much warier. “Once a tom has been around a season or two,” said Spooner, “they know how to get away.”

Not only do turkeys’ feeding grounds change as summer fades, so does the company they keep. In the spring and summer, hens and their poults stick together day and night, with flocks often consisting of several hens and their offspring. Once fall sets in, however, the poults are often no longer roosting in the same trees as their mothers. They find nearby trees in which to spend the night. During the day, the poults and hens still feed and travel together.

The more significant shift, however, is the departure of the young males, known as jakes, from an established flock. The jakes leave their mothers and sisters and form their own flocks, with siblings often sticking together and joining other young males. Mature toms will also flock with one another in the winter and then separate when the breeding season starts in the spring.

But first they need to make it through winter. As autumn mast becomes more scarce, turkeys survive on mosses, buds, seeds, and fern spores. They will also scavenge man-made food supplies, and these may lure them out into the open at times you would not otherwise see them: for example, feasting on scattered corn left after the harvest, or seeds beneath a birdfeeder. Manure piles are also popular winter feeding sites.

Though last winter was an especially cold one, a status report put out by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department noted that the cold had relatively little impact on the wild turkey population. In Vermont, the 2014 spring harvest was lower than the previous year, which may indicate a slight dip in population, but not dramatic, said Alfieri.

Turkeys can generally manage the bitter cold. They have a harder time in deep powdery snow, which makes foraging for food and escaping predators a challenge. According to Alfieri, they can scratch through a maximum six inches of fluffy snow, and about a foot of packed snow. When the ground gets covered with a powdery snowfall, flocks will congregate in stands of hemlock, pine, and other softwoods. "Softwood stands provide mostly shelter, as the trees will hold snow in the canopy, and there will be less on the ground for the turkeys to contend with," explains Alfieri.

As the days continue to get shorter and the temperatures continue to drop, we may have to work a little harder to catch a glimpse of wild turkeys. But they are out there – flocks of hens and poults, jakes and toms – preparing to tough out another winter.

Carolyn Lorié lives with her two rescue dogs and very large cat in Thetford, Vermont.

 
Discussion
  1. Annie Weeden
    Nov 18, 2014

    I liked the article very much.We have a lot of turkeys and a few of my questions were answered. Are young female turkeys called anything? Is poults a term for young turkeys in general as foal is for a young horse, either sex, or is it specific to female turkeys as jakes is to young male turkeys?

  2. Carolyn Lorie
    Nov 20, 2014

    Thanks for the compliment, Annie. Poults refers to a young domestic chicken, turkey, pheasant, or other fowl being raised for food. A young male turkey is a jake and a young female turkey is a jenny.

  3. Jim Duclos
    Nov 21, 2014

    To answer your question, Annie, the young females are called “Jennies”.

  4. Carolyn
    Nov 28, 2014

    Interesting that female asses are called jennies, too!

  5. Suzanne Monza
    Sep 13, 2016

    I have a solitary male turkey who thinks that my mirror glass at my foyer is maybe another turkey he keeps picking at it incessantly. The last one was very aggressive. He was looking for his flock or something. This one is younger more docile and clucks softly when I talk to it and he’s not aggressive. Aside from barricading the doors with my wicker furniture I don’t know what to do about this problem.

  6. Sue
    Oct 10, 2016

    Can you feed turkeys in the winter by spreading scratches on the ground where they may be around?  Feel really sorry for them in the winter.

  7. Dave
    Oct 11, 2016

    In general, Sue, it’s just a bad idea to feed wild animals. It makes them dependent, vulnerable, can make them sick. A better way to help the turkeys out is to manage the forest and fields in a way that supports them. There are a lot of resources out there where you can learn more about turkey habitat requirements. You might start with the State of Vermont’s “Wildlife Habitat Management for Lands in Vermont.”

  8. Kathy Green
    Nov 15, 2016

    Hi Ms. Lorie,

    In our neighborhood we have one very lonely wild turkey. We use to have 5, but someone complained and now we only have the one. We all feel badly as he/she goes up to black cars and truck and even front glass doors and acts as though he/she is trying to show attention to his/her own reflection. A neighbor of mine has a porch that this lonely turkey will sometimes lay down and hang out on and actually play with my neighbors young dogs with the glass door between them.  Should we just leave him/her alone or should we call someone to catch this lonely turkey to bring him/her to a place where there are other turkeys? My neighbor has been feedings it and this turkey already knows when it’s eating time. Should we just leave him/her alone and just enjoy it’s company when it’s around or should we call someone to come pick him/her up and bring it to a place with other turkeys. Thanks so much and I enjoyed reading your article….it was very interesting and informative. 

    Kathy G.

  9. Anna J Prette
    Dec 13, 2017

    Hi Carolyn,

    Thank you for the article! We are in Nelson, BC Canada and we just moved into a house out of town in November. Every morning we have had a visit from 6 hens that walk through our yard. One of the young ones broke its leg when it was a baby somehow and the neighbours all thought she would die, but now she is still limping around; they call her Limpy. Anyway this article was very helpful because they haven’t been coming around lately and we wondered where they go now that the cold has set in. What do you think will happen to Limpy this winter? Will she have a flock?

    Thank you,

    Anna

  10. Terry B.
    Dec 18, 2017

    Enjoyed the article! I drive a school bus and am charmed when I see wild turkeys which is not very often. I am curious about sleeping habits and predators. I live in an urban area and wonder what their predators are.  We are inundated with wild geese and there seem to be no predators for them.
    Thank you.

  11. Marketa
    Dec 28, 2017

    For 2-3 weeks I have coming to my bird feeding area turkey hen, she has one leg only. Few times another hen joined her. I am just worried, how the one legged survive the harsh winter. Obviously with one leg only she cannot hold well up on the branch tree over night. I live in almost rural area with many trees around. One day I also spotted red fox on my property. Is there any way how I could help that poor bird?

  12. Dave Mance
    Dec 29, 2017

    I can’t think of anything you might do, Marketa. I have known some amazingly resilient wild animals, though, so you might be surprised at how long she makes it. A few winters back I watched a three-legged doe floundering in December snow. I imagined her grizzly fate, and considered shooting her. I didn’t, and the next spring, I saw the same three-legged doe, who not only survived the winter but gave birth to a fawn to boot.

  13. Peggy Creighton
    Mar 25, 2018

    From mid-November through late February, I had 16 wild turkeys in my yard, just about every.  As the weather started to get colder I started to feed them.  Every morning they would be waiting for me in the back yard.  As soon as they saw me come out of the house they would run up and greet me.  One day I was late and they were knocking at my door.  It was fun watching them during the day.  They would play and sleep.  There was always a couple of the BIG turkeys standing gaurd.  As the day wound down and it started to get dark, my turkeys would leave.  They would get in perfect formation - once again, the bigger turkeys at the front and the back of the line.  They would not leave until all the turkeys took their place in line.  The 1st week of March they spent the day in the yard, got into formation and I have not seen them since.  That was 3 weekks ago.  Anyone know what could have happened?

  14. John
    Aug 22, 2018

    I have a family of turkeys spending the night in my trees nightly for about the last three weeks. Will this continue into the winter? They are locust trees, but there are also scrub pines around. Just wondering if they’re around for the winter- I have three fish ponds and they probably drink out of them in the morning before I get up because I find feathers around the yard.

  15. dave mance
    Aug 24, 2018

    It’s hard to say, John. They’re opportunistic nomads, so if they find the habitat around your house amenable in winter, they might be back. Of course their diet will change in fall and then again in winter, so it’s probably more likely that they’ll have a separate winter range. And the birds will be bigger, which might make those particular trees less desirable.

  16. Pamela McKenna
    Nov 13, 2018

    I have about 10 turkeys spending time in a hemlock grove in my back yard. I am going to feed them and see if they will stay this winter. I think the challenge for this plan will be today, it’s snowing and I have not seen them yet. I just love their personalities!

  17. dave
    Mar 14, 2019

    Great article! Answered my question as to what the turkeys were eating in the winter. I saw 50 turkeys in February gather for days around a fallen uprooted tree out in the woods, pecking and eating something for days around the tree….. What were they eating around the uprooted fallen tree? Fern roots that came out of the ground when the tree fell…..Very interesting!.

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