The Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most widely distributed and abundant of the five distinct subspecies of wild turkey found in the United States. They can also grow to be the largest. Surprisingly, though, they are very mobile birds with running speed of up to 25 miles per hour and flying speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
Eastern Wild Turkeys are dependent on a varied habitat consisting of hardwood and mixed forests. In the 1800s, Vermont's wild turkeys were pushed to extinction due to extensive clearing of these forests and the spread of agricultural lands. They were first reintroduced in 1969 and fortunately have made a tremendous comeback. They are now widespread throughout the state.
Wild turkeys are social birds and prefer to live and travel together in groups called flocks. The breeding season disrupts flocks to some extent, but throughout most of the year, hens and young birds live in flocks of up to 30 or more. Toms or jakes may gather together, forming a bachelor flock. They often stay close to a big flock of hens and young birds. Every turkey in a flock has a place in the social order, and there is usually one dominant male turkey.
Turkeys travel primarily on foot, with occasional short flights to escape trouble. Long, strong legs enable wild turkeys to run fast: as much as 25 miles per hour. Wild turkeys can fly at a speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour.
A typical summer day for a hen and her poults begins at dawn. They leave the canopy of trees where they spent the night roosting, and the family eats until midmorning. Then, they may take a dust bath. Dusting turkeys scratch dirt onto their bodies, ruffle their feathers, and wiggle in the dust. This may be a way turkeys deal with parasites.
The family may rest until early afternoon when another feeding period begins. At dusk, the turkeys fly up into a large tree to roost for the night and to protect themselves from predators. Poults begin to roost with their mother at about three weeks of age. Before this, they cannot fly well enough to get into the trees.
At first, the poults roost for the night huddled under the hen's wings. As summer goes on, they start roosting further and further away from her. By fall, the poults will be roosting in other trees near their mother.
Although turkeys roost in trees to avoid ground predators, avian predators, such as the Great Horned Owl, are still a threat. When dawn begins to brighten the sky, turkeys fly down from their roost to search for food.
The area that a turkey lives in is called its home range. A turkey's home range may be from 400 to 4,000 acres. A turkey needs several types of habitat within its range:
- Forests which include trees that produce nuts for food, large trees for roosting, and evergreens for winter cover. Southern slopes are preferred because they are warmer in the winter and have less snow accumulation.
- Open fields provide nesting sites and insects during the summer.
- Croplands provide forage for food.
- Tall grass and shrubs provide both feeding habitat as well as areas for hiding nests.
Southeastern and southwestern Vermont are dominated by hardwood stands and openings that provide the best habitat for turkeys in the state. The Champlain Valley also features excellent turkey habitat. Far northern Vermont has extremely cold winters and high snow fall that can limit the survival of turkeys. This is also true of the higher elevations of the Green Mountains.
The reproductive cycle for the wild turkeys begins in spring. As days get longer and warmer, toms can be heard gobbling and seen strutting to attract hens. Turkeys are polygamous, mating with more than one partner, and a relatively few dominant gobblers do most of the breeding. No breeding is believed to be accomplished by one-year-old gobblers when adult gobblers are in the vicinity. The peak of turkey breeding in Vermont generally occurs in mid-April.
The nest is a slight depression in the forest litter situated near vegetation or under a brush pile that provides concealment. Turkey eggs are larger than chicken eggs and are tan with brown flecks. An average clutch is 10 to 15 eggs laid over 12 to18 days. Incubation takes 28 days. Hatching occurs during the end of May and early June.
Young turkeys move about with the hen shortly after hatching. During their first three weeks, a primary cause of mortality is cold, wet weather, although poults are also vulnerable to predators at this time. Soon, their acute vision, alertness, and ability to fly help them to avoid predators. An average of 11 poults born in the spring will probably be reduced to three to seven by fall.
Several hens and their poults often flock and travel together through the summer and winter. The next spring's breeding season disrupts the family group because the hens, both yearlings and older birds, disperse to raise a new family.
Young poults need high protein foods for rapid growth. The hen will take them to open fields and meadows to catch insects. Adult turkeys also eat insects. Turkeys also eat plants and seeds during the summer. By fall, wild turkeys eat fruits, nuts, and berries. Some favorite turkey foods are acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts, grass, and corn. During Vermont winters, turkeys eat primarily mosses, buds, fern spores, seeds, and leftover corn found on farms.
Turkeys eat nuts during fall to build up fat, which helps keep them alive when food is buried under the snow. In years without many nuts, and if all other food is covered by deep, powdery snow, turkeys may have difficulty finding enough food to keep them alive.
During heavy snow cover, turkeys must rely on food found on top of the snow, the edges of pools of water, or on patches of bare ground. Turkeys will sometimes eat the buds off twigs and stems. Hard-crusted snow makes it easier for turkeys to move and find food, while deep powdery snow hinders their movement.
Early settlers cleared Vermont forests for farmland and lumber. By the mid-1800s, more than 75% of Vermont was open land. As a result, wildlife habitat was scarce, especially the forests that turkeys needed to survive. By 1854, the last of Vermont's turkeys disappeared. Loss of habitat and uncontrolled hunting wiped them out.
In the 1950s a private effort by well-meaning people and fish and game clubs to reestablish turkeys in Vermont, included the release of hundreds of "game farm" turkeys throughout the state. Most of these birds were several generations removed from the wild, and therefore lacked the ability to survive Vermont's rugged winters. No game farm turkeys succeeded in establishing populations in Vermont.
Following these attempts, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department investigated the possibility of reintroducing wild turkeys to Vermont. The department worked with the New York State Conservation Department to trap wild turkeys in New York during the winter of 1969 and 1970. The first winter's trapping captured 17 turkeys that were released in Pawlet, Vermont. The second winter of trapping resulted in 14 birds that were released in Hubbardton, Vermont.
These initial populations expanded rapidly, both in number and occupied area. In 1973, the population was estimated at more than 600 turkeys. Since 1973, additional efforts and the refinement of trapping equipment enabled Vermont Fish & Wildlife staff to capture as many as 100 turkeys in one trapping season for release in various areas of the state.
A spring turkey hunting season was established in 1973. This was the first time wild turkeys had been hunted in Vermont in more than a century. Fall "either sex" turkey hunting began in 1975. Spring and fall hunting seasons have continued every year since. Both spring and fall turkey seasons provide a recreational opportunity for hunters, food on the table, and serve as a population management tool.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vermont's turkey population remained relatively stable, at an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 birds. Unusually harsh winters reduced the population in 1993 and 1994, but a combination of limited hunting seasons and milder winters caused the population to rebound quickly. Vermont's turkey population has risen each year since 1994 to its highest level in recent history, and is now estimated at 45,000 to 50,000 birds.
From year to year the number of wild turkeys in Vermont will fluctuate because of a combination of random environmental factors, such as weather changes that affect nesting success, or severity of the winter that affects survival. Long-term population trends, however, are most influenced by changes in habitat and the overall landscape.
Relatively mature forests now dominate 80% of the state, with only about 15% in an open, non-forested condition, such as croplands, hay fields, or pastures. Although the wild turkey is primarily regarded as a forest dwelling bird, ideal habitat conditions include a mix of forest and agricultural land, which provides the greatest opportunities for feeding, nesting, and brooding.
Agricultural lands on active farms provide most of the remaining open acreage in the state that is ideal habitat for wild turkeys. As the number of Vermont farms declines and commercial and residential development continues, availability of open land may increasingly limit habitat for wild turkeys. Keeping active working dairy farms in Vermont will help maintain excellent wild turkey habitat.