TO WILD TURKEYS
By T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors
There were originally six subspecies
of the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in North
America and one related species, the Ocellated Turkey
(Meleagris ocellata) in Central America. The originally
discovered subspecies (M. gallopavo gallopavo) is
now extinct due to hunting. Of the other five subspecies
only the Gould's Turkey is in danger. It occurs in
extreme southwest New Mexico, southeast Arizona and
adjacent regions of Mexico. This subspecies is listed
on the endangered species list and hunting is limited/prohibited
in the United States.
The Eastern Turkey (M. g. silvestris) is the most
widely distributed subspecies and occurs east of the
Missouri river to the eastern shore of the United
states, in parts of Minnesota, the eastern third of
Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern Texas and northern Florida.
The Florida subspecies (M. g. osceola) occurs in the
southern portion of Florida. The Rio Grande (M. g.
intermedia) occurs mainly in the western portions
of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, with transplants in
small portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah
and South Dakota. The Merriam's (M. g. merriami) occurs
in South Dakota, and portions of most of the mountain
states from Canada to Mexico. Hybrid or interbred
turkeys are found in areas where two or more subspecies
occur; these birds may exhibit characteristics of
one or the other subspecies, both subspecies or in
Generally speaking, the Eastern turkey is found in
open, mixed hardwood and pine forests, the Osceola
is found in the subtropical regions of Florida, the
Rio Grande in scattered brush land of the southwest,
and the Merriam's and Gould's in pine forests of the
southwest. Turkeys prefer to roost in trees larger
than the surrounding vegetation and will often choose
roost sites on east facing slopes out of the prevailing
winds. Because sight is a main means of defense against
predators for turkeys, they use open fields and meadows
as feeding and strutting sites, and wooded areas roosting
sites. Strutting sites are often traditional, used
year after year by successive birds.
Turkeys eat a wide range of foods including succulent
grasses and forbes, insects, leftover grains, fruits
of the grape, cherry and black gum, seeds including
mast crops of acorns, pine nuts and juniper (cedar)
berries, and new growth agricultural crops. In the
winter turkeys rely heavily on acorns and seeds; branch
tips of brush and trees; leftover grain crops; and
will feed heavily in fields where manure has been
spread; at corn cribs and feedlots; and at silage
piles. In the early spring turkeys often rely on leftover
grain in agricultural fields. Once the weather warms
and new green growth appears they will begin feeding
in pastures, river and creek bottoms, and hayfields,
where they eat green forage and search for insects.
Hens often seek out sources of calcium (such as land
snails) for egg production in the spring.
The availability and location of roosting sites is
a determining factor in turkey use of the habitat.
If few or no roosting sites are available turkeys
may leave the area or not use it. They prefer to roost
in heavy timber in ravines if possible; where they
can be out of strong prevailing winds in winter, but
they will roost in trees open to the wind. Roost sites
are often located over or near water in the south.
Scientific studies have shown that turkeys often roost
on an east or south facing slope, about a third of
the way down the slope where the winds are calm. East
and south facing slopes also receive the earliest
sunlight, allowing the birds to warm-up and be able
to see early in the morning. In one study roost sites
were often within one half mile of water, and five
hundred yards of a meadow. This could be attributed
to the fact that turkeys often feed before going to
roost in the evening, and they don't travel far at
dusk. The preferred roosts in the study were mature
trees with open crowns giving the turkeys room to
fly into the trees and move around. They also preferred
trees with large horizontal limbs to roost on.
In western areas turkeys use fir, pine, spruce, cottonwood
and large aspen trees as roosts. Eastern birds often
choose pines, elm, maple, box elder, large oak, and
cottonwood. Mature toms often choose pines because
the pines can reduce wind speeds by 50-70 percent.
Eastern turkeys generally have several roost sites
in their home range, and they may use different sites
on successive nights. In limited and poor habitat,
Merriam's turkeys often roost in the same trees on
a regular basis.
Vision scientist, Dr. Jay Neitz believes that birds
see in trichromatic color like humans, and that many
birds actually see four colors. He also believes that
some birds see ultraviolet light as a different color
than any of the three primary colors of red, yellow
and blue seen by humans. Birds detect ultraviolet
light in low light conditions that humans can't, especially
birds that are night predators.
Because turkeys are a prey species their eyes are
located on the sides of their heads, giving them a
wide field of vision. But, because of their wide spaced
eyes, turkeys sacrifice depth perception; they see
very little in front of them with both eyes at the
same time. As turkeys walk, their heads move back
and forth, giving them two different angles of an
object, which helps them determine the distance of
the object. Because of their poor depth perception,
turkeys have difficulty determining the relative size
Birds ears are also located on the sides of their
heads, and because they have no outer ear with a cup
to enhance the sound in one direction, they hear sounds
all the way around them. Sound received by one ear
but not by the other ear helps the birds determine
which direction the sounds come from, but not the
distance of the sound. Loud sounds generally come
from closer range than quieter sounds, and cause turkeys
to become alert.
This makes it clear why prey species with widely spaced
eyes and ears give an alarm signal first, often try
to verify the danger with both their eyes and ears,
and then flee. If they don't know which direction
the danger came from they need to verify the danger,
and direction, before fleeing; or they may actually
flee into, rather than away from danger.
Mammalian prey species (deer, elk, sheep, etc.) that
have a highly developed sense of smell can determine
the direction of danger by scent and wind direction.
They generally flee down or crosswind, knowing they
are fleeing away from danger, not toward it. Because
birds have a poor sense of smell they need to rely
heavily on both their eyes and ears to determine the
direction of danger before they flee from it.
Turkeys leave a variety of signs as indication of
their presence, and their tracks are usually the most
evident sign. Adult turkey tracks range from 2-3 inches
in length, hens up to 2 1/8 inches and toms 2 1/4
inches and longer. Mature toms leave a wider and deeper
middle toe imprint, often with the scales of the toes
showing. Turkey droppings can be found under roosts,
in feeding areas and along travel routes. Hen droppings
are pencil size or larger, and bulbous or spiral in
shape; tom droppings are straight or "J"
shaped. Piles of droppings under large trees indicate
roost sites. Dropped feathers, wing scrapes in strutting
areas and the shallow depressions of dusting bowls
are all evidence of turkeys use. V shaped scratches
in dirt or leaf-litter is evidence of feeding turkeys.
This article is an excerpt from the
Turkey Addict's Manual, by T.R. Michels.
T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized
game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, and outdoor
writer and speaker, who has been studying game animals
for several years. He is the author of the Whitetail,
Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict's
Manuals. His latest books are the 2002 Revised
Edition of the Whitetail Addict's Manual, the
2002 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict's Manual;
and the 2002 Revised Edition of the Duck &
Goose Addict's Manual.
For a catalog of books and other
hunting aids contact:
T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors,
PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983.