Hey! Turkeys can fly!  That was my reaction when, as an adult, I discovered that it was wild turkeys making all kinds of noise in our tall white pine trees.  I’m old enough that turkeys were still scarce after many years of hunting and habitat loss when I was a girl.  So maybe I can save face by making the case that I just didn’t see wild turkeys too often until I moved to Connecticut in 1992.  By then, restoration efforts had been successful in reestablishing the wild turkey in many areas. 

Turkey in flight (Photo by Jody Melanson http://photo.net )

One day, I was standing out in the yard and a large commotion of rustling and clucking was coming from up in the pines.  It was kind of difficult to see up there and I thought it might be a large group of crows, or even some extra noisy squirrels or something.   Finally one of the turkeys decided to come down to the ground, and startled me!  Amazing!  I didn’t think turkeys could fly and I still think they don’t look like they should be able to fly!  Anyway, I have since learned that they are actually pretty strong fliers, but don’t normally go more than about 400 feet and fly close to the ground, usually to perch on the lower branches of trees in open forest areas.  For this reason, good turkey habitat includes some open forested areas.  Tree species such as oak, beech, hickory and chestnut provide the hard mast/nuts that are the preferred foods of adults.  Open areas such as meadows, old agricultural fields and clearings are also attractive for food sources such as seeds and grasses.  Poults (young turkeys) eat seeds, berries and insects. 

Well, since those first observations, I have had plenty of chances to enjoy the wild turkeys that frequent our yard.  In spring, mating season begins and the males put on a show by strutting around with their tails fanned, their fleshy head parts engorged, and their loud gobbles, hoping to attract the hens.  The most dominant males mate with the most females and 8-14 eggs are laid in nests on the ground lined with woody vegetation.   Poults remain with the hen throughout the summer, fall and winter.  In late summer, hens and their poults form flocks of up to 100 birds, with the average flock numbering 10-20. 

Fresh turkey tracks in the snow.

 

Based on what I’ve read, the wild turkey is considered a shy and cautious bird, hiding when it senses possible danger.  The turkeys in my neighborhood have definitely become comfortable with the comings and goings of their human neighbors.  A whole flock of them in the yard will look up and go back to scratching in the pine needles for food when we come outside to work or get the mail.  It is not uncommon to have to wait several minutes for them to mosey across the driveway or the road before you can drive by. 

Wild turkeys have a number of predators in Connecticut including coyotes, bobcats, and foxes.  The eggs and young are also preyed upon by raccoons, skunks, snakes and owls.  Domestic dogs can also be a problem for nestlings in populated areas.  The Connecticut DEP asks state residents not to feed wild turkeys because it promotes the spread of disease and decreases wild instincts.  They offer several suggestions to provide good habitat for our wild turkeys and help maintain their populations:

  1. Leave a high percentage of mature (14” diameter or larger) mast producing trees such as oak, hickory, beech and ash.
  2. Create small, irregularly-shaped, 1- to 3-acre forest openings isolated from roads and houses.  The brush should be cut every 1-3 years, preferably in late summer; at this time there is little chance of disturbing a nest. 
  3. Encourage the growth of grape vines, hawthorn trees, juniper bushes and winterberry to produce food and cover.
  4. It is beneficial to leave a few edge rows of corn (preferably in isolated areas) as a winter food source.
  5. Leave clumps of conifers for cover, such as hemlock or white pine.  As a general rule, the best turkey habitat consists of 50% to 75% forest with half of this in mature hardwood and 10% in conifers. An average of 10% to 40% of the land should be in openings, such as old abandoned fields or agricultural areas.

In our yard, I have found that the turkeys do enjoy acorns.  Corn stalks (with some ears of corn) put out for fall decoration serve a dual purpose once they are discovered by the turkeys!  More information on wild turkeys in Connecticut is available at the CT DEP fact sheet ‘Wild Turkey’.

JAllen