The Life History of the Wild Turkey Eastern wild turkeys are part of a
group of birds that include pheasants, grouse and quail. Wild turkeys are
the largest of the North American game birds with an adult male weighing
17 to 30 pounds. An adult hen will weigh from 8 to 12 pounds.
Gobblers (or toms) can be identified by a reddish-blue head and neck, a
long hair like appendage known as a beard, a sharp bony spur on the lower
part of each leg, and black tipped breast feathers. Hens tend to be
slimmer in appearance; have a less colorful head; have breast feathers
with light-colored tips; and lack spurs. A few hens have beards, but other
characteristics will help to distinguish male from female.
Wild Turkey Identification
1. Head -- feathers only to base of head; colors variable red,
white, and blue.2. Beard -- evident3. Foot -- greater than 4.5 "
4. Droppings -- j-shaped5. Tarsus Length -- 6 "; with spur6. Breast
Feather -- black tip
7. Head -- feathers on crown; light blue.8. Beard -- usually none9.
Foot -- less than 4.5"
10. Droppings -- curled11. Tarsus Length -- 4.5"; no spur12. Breast
Feather -- buff-colored tip
Wild turkeys differ from domestic turkeys in color and body form. Wild
turkeys tend to be slimmer and more streamlined in appearance. Tips of the
tail feathers on wild turkeys are usually deep chocolate brown; on
domestic birds the tips are white. Also, the legs of wild birds are bright
pink, while the legs of domestic birds are gray or black.
Wild turkeys are susceptible to many of the diseases of domestic turkeys
and chickens: fowl diphtheria, fowl typhoid, cholera, blackhead,
trichomoniasis and coccidiosis. Fortunately, wild and domestic birds
seldom come in contact with each other, thereby reducing the opportunity
for disease to spread. Potential for the transmission of disease is a
major reason why releasing domestic birds into the wild is greatly
discouraged and illegal.
In the early spring, flocks formed during winter begin to break-up and
courtship and mating begin. In the winter, gobblers flock together,
separate from hens, young hens and jakes (young males). Occasionally
jakes will be found with gobblers, but typically they remain with the hens
until spring flock break-up. As courtship and mating commerce, males begin
traveling greater distances seeking mates. Gobbling increases and
strutting displays characterized by tail fanning and wing dragging also
become more frequent. Older dominant birds do most of the breeding and one
gobbler is capable of breeding with many females. The Wild Turkey Life
Cycle ACTIVITY MONTH
1. Flocks break-up
2. Gobbling begins; 1st peak early April
3. Gobbling continues; 2nd peak late April
4. Courtship/ mating
5. Hens nesting
6. Broods appear
7. Brood flocks form
8. Gobblers seen in small flocks
Peak time for gobbling in most years is late April. By this time most of
the hens are laying eggs or incubating. The average clutch for wild
turkeys is about 11 and incubation takes 28 days. In Missouri, most young
turkeys hatch in late May and early June.
Turkey nests usually are located near the edge of woods, old fields and
roadsides. As soon as the last turkey has hatched, the hen leads her brood
away from the nest. During the first 3 weeks of life, young turkeys
(poults) are vulnerable to cold, rainy weather and must depend on the
older hen for protection and warmth. In addition, young turkeys may be
preyed on by foxes, coyotes, bobcats, or great-horned owls.
Young turkeys grow rapidly and need a diet high in protein. For the first
week, approximately 80 percent of the poults' diet will consist of
insects. As they become older, their diet will broaden to include grass
seed, fruit of dogwood, wild grapes, acorns, corn, oats and wheat.
At approximately 2 weeks of age, the poults can fly short distances and
are soon roosting in trees. At 16 weeks, the young poults are hard to
distinguish from adults at a distance.
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