Wild Turkeys Foraging in Snow

Late winter is a time when the terms “wildlife carrying capacity” and “limiting environmental factors” are defined and illustrated. It is a time when populations of resident wildlife species, those that remain active through winter, reach an annual low.This is especially true in the North where accumulating snow cover limits mobility and access to dwindling food supplies.

Flocks of wild turkeys, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are sometimes seen foraging in open areas adjacent to evergreen cover at this time of year. Cultivated farm fields, southern exposures and spring-fed wetlands are favorite habitats. I’ve had an opportunity to observe a small flock of turkeys, a “bachelor” group of toms or gobblers, for several weeks and will share some highlights.

These birds move into the stubble of a harvested corn field every afternoon, when  bright sunlight warms and softens crusted snow. Turkeys will feed on the persistent fruit of small trees and shrubs but they’re big, bulky birds and not built for that. They prefer to scratch and dig for food on the ground. In this case, the food of choice is waste grain.

Repeated scratching and digging exposes bare ground and small feeding sites. Occasionally, activity at a feeding site draws the attention of a nearby bird and he’ll run over to get in on the action. At this point the feeding behavior appears to be cooperative, with little aggression or fighting.

It won’t be long before these gobblers disperse to stake out breeding territories and locate hens. But, for now, the priority is winter survival.

Photos by NB Hunter (February, 2020). © All rights reserved.


Small Farms and Cultivated Fields: Priceless

In late spring patches and ribbons of vivid colors are dominant in open landscapes. The spectacular, multi-colored bloom is Dame’s Rocket, a garden escapee gone wild.

Invariably, my interest in this wildflower opens my eyes to the visual resources beyond the bloom. Fields, mostly cultivated fields on local dairy farms, become a subject of interest.


Dame’s Rocket in full bloom 


Front to back: Dame’s Rocket, grain fields and woodlands (8June2017)

The appeal of cultivated fields is much more than the dynamic beauty of line, color and texture through the seasons. They’re wildlife magnets, providing critical habitat for a host of opportunistic birds and mammals.


Buck in velvet, foraging on new growth following the first cutting of hay (27June2017)


Hen turkey foraging in a hay field; there might be youngsters underfoot, chasing hoppers {1July2017)


Lingering storm clouds after days of torrential rains and damaging flood waters (1July2017)


Red-winged blackbird foraging in a field of barley (1July2017)


A hay field colonized by wild black mustard (30June2017)


Orchard grass, a common forage plant in hay fields (27June2017)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Too Wet to Gobble

This morning I discovered several eastern wild turkeys in a hay field in a steady, cold rain. It’s the peak breeding season, and this might be the gobbler’s point of view!?

“Two hens in sight……good breeding stock…..I should wow them with a good strut and gobble….”


“But this cold rain has dampened my enthusiasm….I’m too wet and miserable to strut and gobble.”


“Might as well do the next best thing – eat!”


Photos by NB Hunter 5/5/2017 ©All Rights Reserved

Photoperiod and Signs of Spring

Spring: the first 20 days!

Gray skies, cold rain, snow and flooding have slowed down the arrival of spring but photoperiod will rule the day. Increasing day length is a powerful force that insures the necessary progression of life stages, regardless of the weather.

Many aquatic species, including this Great Blue Heron, arrived to find traditional wetland habitats still covered in ice (23March2017).


Snow geese were reported throughout Central New York during the last week of March. They were refueling on waste grain in corn fields and spread manure before continuing their journey to summer range in the Arctic (27-28March2017).




Wild turkeys were foraging on waste grain too, but increasing daylight was also triggering the mating urge in males; many were observed in full display posture, strutting for uninterested hens (1April2017).


Breeding populations of ring-necked pheasants no longer occur in this region, but some are occasionally released into the wild for recreational purposes. This cock pheasant is crowing and flapping his wings in an attempt to attract a hen (6April2017).



Red-winged blackbirds arrived several weeks ago and are defending their breeding territories aggressively, despite the elements (7April2017).


A sure sign of Spring is the transformation of male goldfinches as they molt into their bright breeding plumage (7April2017).


Groundhogs emerged from hibernation in March to find a snow-covered landscape. In the days ahead they faced yet another hardship – the flooding of burrows in marginal habitats. This one seems to have weathered the storms well…but is grazing in the middle of a hay field, a long way from the nearest burrow. Can it outrun an eagle, fox or coyote? Survival is still questionable (8April2017).


Photos by NB Hunter, March 23 – April 8, 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Wild Turkeys in Early Winter


In the snow belt of the North, agricultural lands provide critical winter habitat for wild turkeys. Not just any corn field or weedy fence row will do however. These large birds  – one of the largest in North America – also need spacious areas with a mixture of grain fields; mature woodlands; large evergreen cover and sheltered, southern exposures. Fields with spread cow manure are a welcome addition to the mix too.

With only a few inches of snow on the ground, our turkeys are unimpeded in their search for concentrated food sources. Flocks ranging from a few birds to 50 or more are often seen in the middle of the day walking, talking and “scratching” across farm fields.


Waste grain in harvested corn fields is a staple (fortunately, the geese didn’t consume all of it in the fall).





Bursts of “lake effect” snow often trigger intense feeding. Accumulating snow could eliminate this high energy food source in a matter of hours – and the birds know that.


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.



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.


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


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


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.


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.


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


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)


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.


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.