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What Time is it in Nature: Wild Turkey

May 3, 2014

We’ve recently added a new member to the Prairie Ridge species list!  We’ve spotted a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) on the grounds several times over the past few weeks, and we welcome our fabulous new visitor.

Wild turkey running by fence

Wild Turkeys are one of the largest birds in the US, topping out at just under 4 feet long and 30 pounds.  They are plump birds atop long legs with wide, rounded tails and a skinny neck topped with a small head.  Apart from a few documented color aberrations, these large birds tend to be darkly colored, with rich chestnut and chocolate-brown feathers with an iridescent green sheen.  Their wings typically have white bars and their tail feathers are tipped with white or rust.  Wild turkeys have mostly bald heads that are grey or pale red in females and red, white, or blue in males depending on their mood.  Males also have sharp spurs protruding from the backs of their legs and a “beard,” a patch of specialized feathers with a hair-like appearance, on their chests.  A small percentage of females also have poorly developed spurs or short, thin beards as well.

Wild Turkeys prefer to live in forests containing oaks and other nut, acorn, or berry-bearing trees, especially forest sections with meadows, farm fields, or other open areas along the edge.  They feed primarily on plants, scratching around on the ground to access acorns and nuts, berries, and fruits.  They also occasionally fly into low trees or shrubs to feed on fruits and can be seen in recently harvested farm fields taking advantage of the bounty of seeds left behind.  From time to time, Wild Turkeys eat insects, salamanders, lizards, and snails to supplement their diet, and during the winter they will feast on tree buds, mosses, and ferns.  You might even see one or a group of Turkeys feeding at a bird feeder in a wooded yard!

The “gobble, gobble” sound we associate with turkeys is made by male Wild Turkeys during the spring breeding season.  The calls carry long distances and attract females to the males, who then puff up their feathers, fan out their tails, and strut about in a courtship display.  If the female likes the display, they will mate.  Both males and females will mate with multiple partners, but the females will become secretive when they are about to lay eggs and seek out a nesting site away from other birds.  They build their nests by scratching a small depression in the dirt in a hidden or brushy area and usually lay 10-12 eggs, one per day, until the clutch is complete.  The female will then sit on the nest for about 28 days before the young hatch from the eggs in summer.  Wild Turkey hatchlings are quite well-developed for baby birds and are usually out of the nest and feeding themselves after just 1-2 days.

Due to their popularity on the dinner table and loss of habitat, US Wild Turkey populations declined sharply in the early twentieth century, with the total population size reaching an estimated low of 30,000 birds.  Protections and reintroduction efforts were put into place and both were surprisingly effective.  By transplanting Wild Turkeys from areas where they were found naturally to suitable areas in other parts of the country, the population rebounded well.  Wild Turkeys are now found in nearly every state in the country and limited hunting is once again permitted.

The Wild Turkey at Prairie Ridge has been spotted several times recently, usually as she feeds in the morning around the blackberry thicket near the bird blind.  She is fairly shy, so look fast before she dashes off into the brush!  Will you catch a glimpse of her on your next visit?

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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