Wild Turkeys in Winter

After more than 50 years of successful restoration and management, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) now occurs throughout the U.S., excluding Alaska. Belonging to a family of chicken-like birds that includes grouse, partridge and quail, turkeys are one of the more common and popular game birds in the country.

Mature wild turkeys average 10 to 20 pounds and can run or fly with surprising speed. They usually look dark, sometimes black, but when viewed in sunlight at close range, are fairly colorful.

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In early winter, before the deep snow arrives, fields, openings and edge habitats in close proximity to mature forests are popular feeding sites.

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Flock of wild turkeys feeding in a field-swamp ecotone 10January2015

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Wild turkeys foraging in a corn field 14January2015

Since turkeys are primarily ground foragers, deep snow that extends into late winter can be lethal. The situation worsens when the snow is soft and the large birds can’t walk freely, wasting precious energy reserves when traveling. Weakened birds are also more vulnerable to predation.

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An early winter scene: turkeys feeding on the persistent fruit of tall shrubs in deep snow

Turkeys are incredibly tough and adaptable and cope with long, harsh winters in several ways.

They seek out dense, mature conifer trees, protected lowlands and sunny slopes for a thermal advantage and energy conservation. Their range and activity are greatly reduced in these critical habitats and, in extreme cases, birds will remain on their roosts without food for days, even weeks.

The turkeys in the following 3 images were part of a small flock of undernourished birds, roosting and searching for food in a sunny thicket of small trees and shrubs. Usually wary of people, they were 10 to 40 meters from a secondary road and unwilling, or unable, to flee vehicular disturbances. Hunger trumps fear.

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A malnourished turkey searching for food in deep, soft snow 6March2015

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A malnourished turkey roosting in the sun on a cold day; it’s fluffing its feathers to enhance their insulating value 6March2015 (1 of 2 images)

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Once thought of as a back-country, “big woods” species, intolerant of humans, the Eastern Wild Turkey is adapting to alternate food sources in close proximity to people as a means of winter survival. It is not unusual to see birds in wooded residential habitats visiting bird feeders. In rural areas, waste grain in cow manure is a late-winter staple, and can be the difference between life and death.

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Part of a flock of about 25 wild turkeys that have flown in from a nearby roost in mature timber to pick grain from cow manure.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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10 thoughts on “Wild Turkeys in Winter

  1. Good info, I never thought about turkeys having a tough time when the land is snow-covered. Nice photos of them. I can recognize a malnourished duck, but not a turkey, not seeing them as often.

    • Aside from their abnormal behavior, the 5th image of the slender bird walking is very telling: the normally plump breast is gone, sculpted inward. In the absence of supplemental feed, that small flock will perish within a week or two.

  2. That is very sad, Nick. We keep get warnings not to feed wildlife, but I would have put out corn or something that they would eat just to save the flock. We have the problem with starving ducks. I have been see them frozen in the river by great numbers.

    • I wasn’t aware of the starving waterfowl issue (esp. the magnitude of the mortality) – appreciate that info. Winter feeding of wildlife is a troubling and difficult issue, at least for me. I fully understand “nature’s way” and the warnings about winter feeding, esp. with regard to deer and Chronic Wasting Disease. But, we all maintain wildlife welfare programs/feeders for songbirds…and that’s more or less acceptable…but why? where does one draw the imaginary line? convenience? small and cute? harmless? Compounding the problem is the expanding interface between humans and wildlife that affords almost daily opportunities to observe natural events first-hand, at a personal level. Easy to anthropomorphize, hard to look a starving critter in the eye.

      • I do have a post coming on the duck deaths. Last year I was watching ducks and never realized how bad was their situation. I know what you mean about drawing the line. I know better than to interfere, yet some animals will even approach to see if you have anything to offer. I was watching swans and they came ashore to greet me. Then I found out a guy was feeding them daily. I suppose that is one reason we are not to feed wildlife. They lose their fear of us.

  3. Sad what these strange winters are doing to the wild critters out there. We have wild turkeys out here and they don’t seem to have problems with snow. I’m wondering if the drought will affect them instead.

  4. The wild turkey is a bird I used to see often in upstate New York along the edges of the woods and fields as I sped by in my car. Never really thought about their circumstances in winter till I read your very interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharing this!

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