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.