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Scientific Name: Meteagris gallopava silvestris
Common Name: Eastern Wild Turkey

(Information for this species page was gathered by Ms. Sherri Fawcett as part of an assignment in Biology 220W, Spring 2004)

The eastern wild turkey (Meteagris gallopava silvestris) is the most abundant and most widely occurring sub-species of the five types of wild turkeys. Its natural range includes almost all of the eastern United States. The wild turkey is the largest game bird in North America. Male turkeys (“gobblers”) are between 2 ½ and 3 feet tall and weigh on average 16 pounds (with some individuals weighing in considerably larger!). Female turkeys (“hens”) are on average 2 feet tall with average weights of 9 to 10 pounds. Gobblers have shiny, black feathers, a red head, a red “beard” that can be up to 1 foot long, and sharp spurs on their legs. Hens are a duller, dark gray, and rarely have either leg spurs or beards. There are many variations in color (white to reddish brown) some of which may be due to genetic traits and others of which are due to deficiencies in nutrition.

Range, Habitat and Diet
Wild turkey form predominantly single gender flocks which can range in size from 5 to 50 individuals. A flock may utilize a home range of more than 1000 acres. A key feature of an optimal turkey range is a diversity of individual habitats (including fields, meadows, woodlands etc). Each of these habitats is needed to provide different aspects of the turkey’s feeding, roosting, and breeding needs. Wild turkeys are especially abundant in wet to swampy forests, brush lands in early stages of ecological succession, and open woods. Turkeys roost at night in trees and spend much of their days (especially in the early and later daylight hours) opportunistically searching for food.

Turkeys are omnivorous and consume a wide range of food stuffs depending on season and food availability. In the spring they eat plant shoots, buds, insects, tubers, and any overwintering mast (acorns etc). In the summer they consume vegetation and many large insects (especially grasshoppers and beetles), other invertebrates (snails, slugs, spiders, ticks, and centipedes), and many small vertebrates (including salamanders, frogs, lizards, and even small snakes). In the fall they eat the newly fallen mast, fruit, and seeds and also waste grain from agricultural fields. Mast is especially important to turkeys, and good mast production years almost always lead to a surge in their populations.

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Predators
Wild turkeys have excellent vision and very acute hearing. They utilize these sensory systems both to find food and to avoid predators. It is very difficult for a predator (or hunter or hiker) to get close to turkeys in the wild. They usually are very well aware of the presence of any intruder long before the “hunter” even notices the location of the bird. Turkeys move about primarily on foot and can easily run 12 mph and, according to one source, up to 25 mph! They are capable of short flights and can reach, at need, very rapid velocities (up to 55 mph!). Deep snows can greatly inhibit the ability of turkeys to both move about and find food. Persistent, deep snow can greatly reduce wild turkey population sizes and may be the primary factor in limiting the northward expansion of their range into Canada.

Flocks and Territories
Wild turkey flocks have distinct social structures especially in the gobbler flocks. Ritualized (vocal challenges) and actual fighting among the male turkeys is a common occurrence and serves to define and reset the “pecking order” of the flock especially with regard to the right and opportunity for reproduction. Fights may also occur in between gobblers of different flocks as they assert ownership of entire territories or significant overlaps of adjacent territories. Hen flocks are often made up exclusively of either those hens with young or those hens without young.

Mating and Reproduction
In the early spring, gobblers stake out an individual breeding territory and begin to loudly “gobble” in order to attract females. When a hen comes within the view of the calling gobbler, he stops vocalizing and begins a ritualized dance in which he fans his broad tail, puffs out his body feathers, and spreads and drags his wings as he struts about. Gobblers can also make a drumming sound via contractions of their pectoral muscles. Mating then occurs, and the female departs to seek out a nesting habitat. The males then will resume calling and dancing and will mate with as many females as possible.

The female is able to store sperm and thus delay fertilization for up to 8 weeks depending on weather conditions and the availability of suitable nesting habitats. An ideal nesting habitat is typically in dense brush, tall grasses, or in areas of abundant fallen trees. Nests consist of a shallow depression in the ground that is lined with and covered by dried leaves and other pieces of vegetation. Eggs are laid one per day over a period of 8 to 20 days. Typically 10 to 15 eggs are deposited into the nest. The eggs are 2 ½ inches long, light brown in color with brown spots. The female covers each laid egg with leaves and then roosts in a tree nearby until all of her eggs have been laid, Only then does she begin incubation. After starting incubation she may sit on the nest nearly continuously for 28 days.

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At the end of the incubation period the young turkeys (“poults) laboriously break out of their shells and are led almost immediately by the hen to a ground roosting area. For the next two weeks the poults and the hen will roost in as concealed and as safe a ground habitat as possible. This is the time, though, when a significant percentage of the poults are taken by a wide array of predators. Half to three fourths of each season’s poults will not survive their first year of life. At two weeks, the poults are capable of flying up into tree roosts and soon after the hen and her surviving poults will rejoin a hen-and-poult flock. The average life expectancy of a poult is about 1 ½ years. Turkeys that survive their first year, though, have little to fear from any predator (except humans) and can live up to 15 years in their natural habitats. In the fall, young gobblers will leave the hen flocks and form or join gobbler flocks.

Predators
Predators of wild turkeys are most significant during the first weeks through the first year of life, as mentioned above. Raccoons, gray and red foxes, dogs, feral cats, opossums, skunks, large birds (like crows and hawks), large snakes, and even chipmunks and gray and red squirrels all will actively prey on young turkeys and also turkey eggs.

Population Control in Pennsylvania
Wild turkey populations in Pennsylvania have undergone dramatic changes over the past 100 years. The formerly abundant turkey was in the early decades of the 20th Century nearly extinct within the boundaries of the commonwealth (population estimates were below 5000 individuals that were primarily located in very isolated habitat areas of Pennsylvania). Aggressive action by the State Game Commission, though, to control and limit hunting and to initiate captive breeding and release programs enabled the wild turkey population to be re-established. In the late 1970’s turkey sightings in the fields and woods of Pennsylvania were still uncommon events, but by the 1990’s turkeys were a regularly observed component of our fauna (a recent population estimate of wild turkeys in Pennsylvania indicates that there are over 400,000 individuals widely distributed across the commonwealth).

There are many wild turkeys out on our nature trail. If you walk the trail quietly, you may see one. But you should know that they will see you long before you notice them!


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