A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

10 Wild Things about Wild Turkeys

Gobblin’, spittin’ and struttin’ – it’s a spring thing
By Eric Aldrich
Spend a morning in our forests this time of year and you’re bound to hear that crazy sound: a male wild turkey gobbling his head off.
There’s a lot going on with all that gobbling. There’s action. There’s color. There’s drama with other male turkeys. And there’s – dare I say it – sexual tension!
To honor the species that Benjamin Franklin thought would be a respectable emblem of our country, here are a few cool things about the wild turkey.

1. The Comeback Kid: The wild turkey is the poster child for successful wildlife restoration. Populations of this North American native were nearly wiped out because of habitat destruction and unregulated commercial hunting. They were completely gone from New Hampshire 150 years ago. Things began to turn around in 1937 with the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which enabled state wildlife agencies to use federal funds to restore and manage the game birds. Those funds come from an excise tax hunters’ purchase of firearms and ammunition. After initial fits and starts, the restoration started succeeding in the 1950s, with the advent of the cannon net. The N.H. Fish and Game Department’s first successful restoration project began in 1975 with the introduction of wild turkeys in the Connecticut River valley. Now biologists estimate there are more than 25,000 wild turkeys in New Hampshire and 7 million throughout North America.

2. Subspecies: There are five distinct subspecies of the North American wild turkey:
  • The Eastern, that’s what we have and it’s the most widely distributed, found all across the eastern half of the country. It’s also the biggest of the subspecies; it can weigh over 30 pounds, but normally weighs between 16 and 24 pounds.
  • Osceola (or Florida) turkey, which is found, oddly enough, in Florida.
  • Merriam’s turkey, found in the Rocky Mountains and Western prairie states.
  • Gould’s, found throughout the central Mexico and southern New Mexico and Arizona.
  • Rio, which ranges through Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas.
3. Cool names: Males are gobblers or toms. Females are hens. Juvenile (year-old) males are called jakes; juvenile females are jennies. The little chicks are called poults. Together, they’re a flock.

4. Limited flight: If you’ve ever surprised a flock or a single bird, you know they can fly, but not very far. They can fly from one end of a field to the other, but are more comfortable flying into the limbs of a nearby pine.  They can run about 20 mph.

5. A Tom’s Harem: While lots of species in the bird world stick with their mate for life, not wild turkeys. They’re polygamous. In winter, wild turkeys tend to stick together in pretty large flocks. By spring mating season, they often divide into groups of hens, jakes and gobblers. One gobbler usually emerges as the dominant male to do most of the breeding with the hens. This alpha turkey, if you will, is often the biggest gobbler.

6. Spittin’ and Struttin’: The mating season inspires all sorts of action for the toms. To get the attention of a hen, that gobbler will strut his stuff by puffing up and spreading out his wings, scraping the tips on the ground. He’ll spit, cluck, hum and gobble. Even their heads will burst with vivid red, white and blue. That’s a determined male!

7. Beards and Spurs: Males also have what other birds don’t: a beard. Four to 10 inches long, these beards emerging from the breast are sort of a modified feather, stiff to the touch. Gobblers also have a spur on the back of their legs, presumably for fighting other males. 

8. Keen eyesight: Not sure if it’s a myth or an exaggeration, but I’ve heard it said that a turkey can see a man blink 100 yards away in the woods. Anyone who’s hunted wild turkeys can attest at least some truth to that. Because of that eyesight, a turkey hunter must wear camouflage and be very still.

9. Omnivorous: Wild turkeys have a varied diet of seeds, grasses, nuts (including acorns), berries, roots and insects. They’ll even eat snakes. To support their need for protein and rapid growth, poults will consume mostly bugs, including moths and larvae.

10. Game Bird: Now that they’re successfully restored, wild turkeys are also a model for sustainable hunting. By the time the spring season arrives (May 3 to 31 in New Hampshire), toms have mated with many hens, who have laid ground clutches of 8 to 15 eggs each. New Hampshire allows a licensed hunter to take one male in the spring (if the hunter’s skilled and lucky). With those limitations, turkey numbers remain sustainable with ongoing management by the Fish and Game Department. The hunt itself is fun and challenging, coming at a great time to be outside.

To learn more about wild turkeys, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.