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Wildlife Around Us: Wild Turkeys

Calvin Hanson

Wildlife Around Us:  Wild Turkeys
For five years, wild turkeys have captivated my interest by their beauty, stature, movements, and mannerisms. During that time, I have studied and photographed them at close range, one flock in particular. The flock has varied in size from 65 birds to 25. It contained five adult males known as toms or gobblers, several mature female hens, and several young males and females.
PHOTO CREDIT - Calvin Hanson

Cornwall - February 29, 2012 - For five years, wild turkeys have captivated my interest by their beauty, stature, movements, and mannerisms. During that time, I have studied and photographed them at close range, one flock in particular.

The flock has varied in size from 65 birds to 25. It contained five adult males known as toms or gobblers, several mature female hens, and several young males and females.

Mature turkeys are darker brown while young birds are a lighter red brown. Females generally have duller feathering than males. When the sun shines or when the birds are excited, their feathers become a rainbow of iridescent colours including red, green, blue and gold. The plumage of the adult male glistens profusely and is much more pronounced. Toms have a beard or rope protruding from their chest; the more mature, the longer the beard. One gobbler’s beard was so long he stepped on it when he pecked the ground for food.

An unusual sighting was encountered in the flock - a very pretty whitish coloured wild turkey. An internet article featured by the Minneapolis Star Tribune states this colour is called smoke-phase. The potential of this colour occurring is approximately one in every 100 birds, and usually they are females. During a good portion of the winter this smoke-phase bird lacked pigmentation in the head, legs, and feet; but pink skin started to show when spring arrived.

The flock normally proceeds in a single file formation led by an adult female. They are like soldiers following each other on a mission. They prefer to walk, but they can perform a very fast ground covering running walk. If they are frightened or wish to avoid walking over a muddy field, they will force themselves to fly short distances. When in flight they put on a fine display with their huge bodies and massive wingspan. With their keen eyesight, they can react to any sign of movement about 1,700 feet away.

As winter comes to a close, the flock dwindled in numbers to 25 or 30. Interestingly, the adult males have tolerated each other most of the time, walking and eating together side by side.

Two mature hens are the flock’s watchdogs keeping a lookout for potential danger coming from the ground or sky. If danger is looming, the two hens will be the first to warn the others with a clucking call. If these hens feel threatened, they will fly away first, followed by the rest of the flock. The last to react seem to be the adult toms.

The hens will also fly high up into nearby trees to watch over and guard the flock. Turkeys dislike birds flying overhead such as crows, hawks, and even red-winged blackbirds; so they react to these birds by ducking their heads, spreading their wing and tail feathers, and darting one way and another as if they are under attack, then try to seek shelter under evergreen trees.

While the flock is feeding, the two controlling hens talk to the flock using a calming cluck call, or if potential danger is present they use a much stronger rapid cluck in which case all heads in the flock are raised on high alert.

Turkeys follow a routine. In late afternoon, they search for suitable trees in which to roost for the night. They carefully pick their location, chosen with wind direction and weather conditions in mind. Often they walk back and forth repeatedly at the edge of the woods deciding which particular spot they will ultimately select. When dusk arrives, they fly 30 to 60 feet high into the trees to roost. The next morning after dawn breaks, they fly down from the trees one at a time, gathering in a tight group. They are not eager to move to another location for 30 to 90 minutes later. On extremely cold days, they remain in the trees for a couple of hours later than usual until the temperature rises.

Occasionally during the winter months, males will become aggressive resulting in fighting or sparring matches. Younger mature males will challenge the older adult toms as they try to vie for top spot in the flock. Challenging males are observed with their heads turning bright red and swelling in size. They run around chasing each other; and can get quite violent flying up and charging each other with their talons. They do settle down, but their heads remain bright red and swollen for quite some time afterward.

The young males often clown around, practicing to be adult males making playful advances toward other young birds in the flock, leaping up in the air with wings spread and feet jabbed forward. After a young turkey has made these advances, he usually runs a few feet away, only to practice additional advances minutes later on a different young bird. The young birds are respectful of the mature adult males and try not to get in their way. The older males tend to ignore the young birds knowing they are no real threat.

All the turkeys flap their wings frequently during the day. While standing on their tip toes, they puff themselves up, heads held high, wings elevated and in a full spread, and then the wings are flapped back and forth a couple of times. When it snows or rains, they flap their wings more frequently.

The whitish smoke-phase wild turkey is somewhat of a ringleader directing the flock here and there, and when it decides it is time for the flock to move on, it will be the culprit to get the flock motivated. The other normal coloured wild turkeys do not show any aggressiveness toward this bird, but if it gets too rambunctious the adult toms peck it in the back as a signal for it to move out of the way.

Wild turkeys scratch for food using their powerful legs and feet. The observed birds have been eating seeds, and after a good fill, they like to relax basking in the sun on old split-rail fences.

Spring is the time when the adult gobblers show their dominance and strut their stuff trying to maintain control over the flock or any other male who is attempting to unseat the dominant male. This strutting ritual can last for several minutes to well over one hour, and several times a day. When a male struts, he parades around in slow motion often in circles, putting on a grand display of dominance showing the others in the flock that he is worthy of being in full command. He makes his presence known in stunning fashion with his head turning red and drawn closely into his neck, his tail feathers fully fanned, wing feathers lowered, with body plumage puffed and glowing in shades of red, green, blue, and gold.

In early April the flock divides into two groups, but they stay within 40 feet of each other most of the time. The groups come together as a single unit at intervals during the day and also at night when it is time to roost, although agitation is noticeable between the adult toms when this occurred.

Adult males that haven’t been successful in a takeover of the flock or part of it appeared to be outcasts, and were seen throughout the day meandering alone, but not far from both groups. Their quest for supremacy was ongoing; however if they tried to re-enter a flock the dominant tom would sometimes show displeasure and he would drive them away. It seems the outcast males have a choice of giving in to the dominant tom under his rule, or go elsewhere.

In one instance, five males were strutting and fanning their tails at once. Just prior to this spectacular display of manliness the flock seemed very content until one male chased another male very aggressively at full charge, and at that point the other three males joined in, and the scrapping session began with the birds flying up in the air with wings flapping and talons jabbing at each other. The females and younger jakes immediately ran about 60 feet away to keep out of the way of the sparring males, and there they stayed waiting for the outcome.

One male eventually reigned supreme and was dominant over the other four males, but it took a good part of an afternoon to win his dominance. First, he drove two adult toms several hundred feet away, the entire time he and the other two males were strutting and fanning their tails. Repeatedly, he would make advances walking toward the two driving them away, and reluctantly they complied. When he felt he had conquered them, he then walked back to the original spot where the fighting started, now to take on the other two adult males who were also strutting and fanning their tails, but they didn’t challenge him.

Once the females and young jakes realized he had won the victory; they walked back to the original spot, and joined the dominant male. Slowly, the four ostracized males rejoined the flock, but this time without fanning their tails or showing any aggressiveness toward the dominant male. The dominant male allowed them to rejoin the flock.

The cycle of life continues for the wild turkey. For me, they have been a most enjoyable study.

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