Eastern Wild Turkeys

Around Frederick County, an increasing number of people are encountering the once highly improbable sight of Eastern Wild Turkeys, (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). The domestic turkey is of the same order, Galliforme. These wild turkeys are the same birds encountered in large numbers by pilgrim settlers.

There are several subspecies of wild turkeys; the Eastern Wild Turkey population is the largest of them all, estimated to be up to a few million birds, ranging mostly east of Texas from Maine to Florida. Members of the various subspecies can be found in the western US, Canada, and parts of Mexico.

The male, called “tom,” or “gobbler,” is the largest, and can weigh up to 30 pounds, with the average around 20. Females are called “hens;” juvenile males are called “jakes,” and the young are called “poults.”

Wild Turkeys are upland game birds, and are the second most popular hunted game, after deer. Once declined to almost extinction in the late 19th and early 20th century due to hunting and loss of habitat, their survival and restoration represents an amazing success story. Wildlife managers trapped and released pairs of wild turkeys in suitable habitat. The resulting birds have proliferated, and like many wild animals, have expanded their habitat into some urban, suburban, and rural residential areas due to human population spread. The preferred habitat is mixed forest of oaks and pines with some clearings.

Eastern Wild Turkeys are usually dark grey brown, with lighter brown banded tail feathers. Like many bird species, the males are more brightly colored with a brighter iridescent green sheen to the feathers. The featherless neck and head has red wattles on the throat, and fleshy growths called “caruncles.” There is a fleshy growth over the male’s beak called a “snood.” There are white bands on the wing feathers. Toms have a beard which is hairy, coarse growth from the breast. The jakes have a shorter version of the beard, as do some hens.

During the mating season in March and April, the male turkey can display various colors like bright red wattles, and white and blue colors on the head. They also fan their tail feathers, droop their wings, and strut to attract the hens. Males are more solitary, and sometimes there will be multiple mating males joining with the females. The females usually flock together, although sometimes, a solitary female can be seen with young. At certain times, large flocks of these birds can be seen— especially in rural areas. Some people have reported blowing a car horn to get the birds to move off a driveway, or having to shoo them out of a rural roadway to permit pas-sage.

The females prepare a shallow nest, usually in woody vegetation. They lay a clutch of 10 to 14 eggs which hatch in about a month. Eggs are tan and speckled to aid in concealment. The poults normally leave the nest within a day, and remain with the females. The poults require a diet rich in insect protein for their development. For this reason, the hens search out an insect-rich environment for their poults.

There are many types of predators that affect the population and number of survivors. During the nesting period, raccoons, skunks, opossums, groundhogs, snakes, foxes, and coyotes will eat the eggs. When the poults are young, they are prey to some of these same animals, as well as to hawks and other raptors.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous. They are mostly ground feeders, although they will eat berries from shrubs and fruit from small trees. Their diet consists of acorns and other mast such as hickory, chestnut, pine, beech, and hazel nuts. They will eat corn, soy beans, insects, small amphibians, and grasses. They usually feed in the morning and evening, and use their feet and toes to scratch for insects. Their long legs are useful for scratching through snow in search of food. They have three toes in front and one in the back, leaving a distinctive track. Male turkeys have spurs on the back of their leg which are used for defense.

Turkeys have a variety of vocalizations including the male gobble which can be heard over long distances, and is used to call females during the mating season. These vocalizations include clucks, putts, yelps, a spitting sound, and drumming. Some of these are imitated by hunters to call the birds during hunting season. It has been noted that sometimes the slamming of a car door will trigger a gobble call. It is one of the most distinctive calls, and is very pleasant to hear, along with the calls of owls.

Turkeys are strong fliers, but mostly prefer running to escape enemies. They are surprisingly fast runners. The toms will run mostly, while the hens will fly when star-tled. They are survivors, and use of a variety of foods and habitats help to insure their survival. Normally extremely shy and elusive in the wild, turkeys that have adapted to living around people who feed them, have been known to become very aggressive, often demanding food by pecking on doors and windows.

While the turkey survival news has been remarkable, in Maryland as well as other areas, turkey populations are again in decline. While not because of hunting due to the carefully regulated season and game limit, loss of prime habitat, increase in predator numbers, and unusually wet breeding season weather has taken a toll. Results of the Maryland DNR annual turkey survey in 2017 revealed an average survival of 2.3 poults per hen. Wet weather has a very detrimental effect on the survival of the birds. When the birds are wet, they have a much more distinctive odor, which is easier to detect by predators, and exposure of the young birds can cause their loss. Frederick County has exhibited a smaller decline in the numbers of birds than other areas in the state. Hopefully, we will continue to enjoy the sight and sound of these magnificent birds.

Article and photos by Claude Eans, FCFCDB member

Nature note for 9/23/2018