The hen trills softly to the thirteen eggs nestled in a shallow depression lined with dead leaves. The eggs, dark bone color speckled with sepia, are slightly larger than a chicken egg. She gently turns them twice daily to prevent the yolks from sticking to the shell, which prevents the embryo’s death. After the twenty-fifth day the turning stops so that each chick can position itself on its back in preparation for pipping—that first tentative hole in an eggshell just prior to hatching.
As the hen putts, tiny vocalizations from inside each egg are faintly audible. The developing chicks are already imprinting to her voice. They will hatch within a few hours of each other, a chorus of peeps seemingly calling encouragement from egg to egg. In a final effort, the shells fall away and each chick scrambles free. Another wild turkey has entered the world.
The world they enter is fraught with dangers. “Once hatched, approximately 50% of chicks do not survive to four weeks of age,” says Gary Norman, Forest Game Bird Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. “On the nest, hens are vulnerable to most mammalian predators—foxes, bobcats, skunks, opossums, and coyotes. Some smaller predators like weasels can disrupt nesting and eat the eggs but may not kill the hen.
“All turkeys are vulnerable to avian predators including hawks, owls, and crows. Some reptiles like black snakes take eggs from the nest. We’ve also seen an increasing black bear population in the state and I’m concerned that they may be having an influence on nesting birds. We’ve done some camera work on grouse nests and have filmed bears predating grouse nests. I think the same can be said for turkeys.”
Another major factor is bad weather. “One of the biggest threats to young turkeys is a wet, cold spring,” Gloucester hunter Bill Healy adds. “A newborn chick cannot take torrential spring rains like we’ve had this past year. This isn’t going to be a good year for turkeys.”
Wild turkeys are predators in their own right. Foraging through fields, a flock will spread out, forming a phalanx that drives a variety of insects before them—crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, flies, moths, and butterflies. Come fall acorns are favored foods, along with a variety of berries and seeds. Adults are truly opportunistic, eating over 350 different plant species as well as caterpillars and small amphibians.
The wild turkey has the distinction of being the only species in North America identified by name as ‘wild’.
Based upon fossil evidence, these birds precede man’s oldest ancestor by tens of millions of years. Hunted by the millions beginning with the arrival of America’s first colonists, by 1910 they had disappeared from most of their original range and populations in Virginia numbered just a few thousand.
With early wildlife management efforts, the population slowly rose but struggled to grow. Attempts to farm-raise wild turkeys failed miserably. Without a mother to teach them the ropes, most young birds died once released into the wild. Trapping them was a challenge as these elusive birds are wary by nature and learned quickly to avoid the traps.
Then in the 1950s, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries used concealed, cannon-propelled nets to ensnare them. Almost 900 trapped turkeys were moved to areas where their numbers had been decimated, in hopes the population would recover. Back then, no one knew how resilient these birds could be.
When our daughter, Lena, was studying wildlife management at Virginia Tech in the early 1990s, the belief among wildlife managers was that a flock of wild turkeys required approximately a thousand acres of undisturbed upland hardwood forests, and that forest fragmentation was a major problem facing turkey restoration. Apparently no one bothered to tell the turkeys!
Now working for the Army Corps of Engineers at Rend Lake in southern Illinois, Lena laughs as we watch a large flock forage in our small orchard. “Wild turkeys do very well in the Midwest too, despite the degraded habitat. We have winter flocks of over eighty birds running through one campground. With proper management, they turned out to be more adaptable than anyone imagined.”
In Virginia, their numbers are upwards of 200,000; regionally, the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula have the highest densities at roughly 38,000 birds. In some areas they are showing up in the unlikeliest places—from suburban yards to urban thoroughfares. Turkeys have been spotted chasing mail trucks, deliverymen, garbage trucks, and police cars. Their territorial fury has been documented and put on YouTube where one video commenter wrote, “Turkey revenge for all those Thanksgivings!”
Rather than admired as an adaptable and intelligent bird, wild turkeys have been stereotyped as stupid, and the terms “turkey” and “jive turkey” were commonly used in the 60s and 70s to describe someone generally uncool or dim-witted. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Wild turkeys seem hard-wired with complex, inherited information that, coupled with their profound sensory acuity, provide adaptive and survival instincts from the moment of birth. Social by nature, intensely curious, and keenly aware of their surroundings, as they forage they vocalize a variety of sounds, alerting each other to interesting discoveries and possible dangers.
As any turkey hunter knows, finding and calling a wild turkey is often a lesson in patience and futility. Gloucester resident David Lee Williams’s years as a hunter has taught him that. “If the food source is good, they can settle in a small area and no one will even know they are there. They are God’s wariest animals.” Williams finds hunting them infinitely rewarding. “If I could choose just one animal to hunt the rest of my life, it would be the turkey, because you are calling the sharpest animal in the woods to you.” Healy adds, “To a veteran hunter, a good hunting day is just hearing a gobbler.”
Strong opinions exist among hunters regarding the best season to hunt turkeys. “The merits of spring and fall hunting vary depending on who you are talking to,” says Norman. “In western Virginia, many older hunters experienced only fall hunting before the spring season was legalized. They contend spring hunting is unethical because it’s easy to attract a gobbler by simulating a hen’s calls. In fact, we have found very high rates of hens incubating nests meaning they have not had problems finding males. By keeping harvest rates below 10% in the fall, we will have healthy numbers of jakes being recruited into the population and eventually good numbers of adult gobblers.”
In regions that did not have a traditional fall season, hunters swear there is only one true turkey season—the spring gobbling. “On the other hand, excessive spring hunting can result in an over-harvest of gobblers resulting in areas with low gobbling and turkey harvests,” Norman points out. “I believe we’re at our maximum harvest rates with our current season structure if we want to provide quality fall and spring hunting opportunities.”
A male’s iridescent plumage is offset by a bare neck and head. The neck is bluish-gray, and the head is red, blue, or whitish depending on the season. A fleshy, wart-like appendage called a caruncle is located between the eyes, and a pink or red lobe called a wattle hangs from its chin. The breast feathers sport a tuft called a beard that grows throughout the turkey’s lifespan at a rate of about four inches a year. Its large, fan-shaped tail is distinctive, and powerful legs sport sharp, bony spikes called spurs.
Female birds are less colorful, with gray heads and breast feathers tipped in white, gray, or brown. Occasionally, a female will also sport a beard. Peak breeding or gobbling season takes place in early spring. Males perform elaborate rituals to attract receptive females, strutting, gobbling, dragging their wing tips, and fanning their tails. Their heads will turn vivid shades of red to display their prowess.
Females lay one egg per day beginning in mid-April. The approximately dozen eggs are incubated for four weeks, and by the beginning of June young chicks are following their mothers out of the nest within a day of hatching. They can fly by the time they are ten days old. In flight, adults have been clocked at speeds up to fifty-five miles per hour.
In a 1782 letter written to his daughter, Sally, Benjamin Franklin expressed disappointment that the Bald Eagle had been selected for the Great Seal of the United States. In Franklin’s view, “the eagle was a bird of bad moral character who did not make an honest living; choosing instead to steal from others.” Franklin preferred the wild turkey, finding it a much more respectable bird; a true native of America. Though a bit vain, Franklin wrote, the wild turkey was a bird of courage who would not hesitate to attack any who would presume to invade his territory; in Franklin’s mind, a more fitting symbol for the new nation.
As we prepare our annual Thanksgiving feast, perhaps we should reflect back to those first thanksgivings in Jamestown and Plymouth. History records that turkey was consumed in great quantities. Early colonists owed a great deal to this native bird, and its symbol of our favorite consumptive holiday is ubiquitous nation-wide. Ben Franklin would be pleased.
My personal thanks to Gary Norman (Forest Game Bird Project Leader), Matt Lindler (editor of Turkey Country magazine), and Gloucester residents and fellow hunters David Lee Williams and Bill Healy for taking the time to talk turkey.