The day-to-day life of our native wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is pretty routine most of the year: Hang out with friends, feed during the day and roost in trees at night.
The bird is a tremendous hiker, walking long distances in a day. It is wary, nervous, and constantly on the move. It is also a swift runner preferring to run from danger rather than fly. But fly it can for short distances with surprising speed for their bulk. They’ve been clocked at flying 55 mph, but when flushed they seldom fly more than a few hundred feet.
The home range of wild turkeys varies greatly by season. It tends to be largest from fall through spring. At this time, gobblers (male turkeys) use an average of 4 plus square miles, which declines to an average of just more than 2 square miles in summer. On an annual basis, individual gobbler home ranges are 3 to 11 square miles.
Wild turkeys separate into flocks by sex and to some extent age. In summer, fall and winter, the basic unit is the family flock (called a brood) consisting of the hen and her poults (youngsters). One or more successful hens often form multiple hen-brood flocks in late summer and fall. Those hens that were unsuccessful in nesting form their own flocks. Adult males form flocks that rarely associate with hens outside of the breeding season. In late fall the young males (“jakes”) separate from their brood and form flocks.
Sex as always changes everything. In March or early April, the bachelor gobblers join the hens and form large groups. After two or three weeks the birds will break up into mating flocks consisting of two or three adult gobblers and five to 15 hens. Each of these breeding flocks has one dominant gobbler who does most of the mating and one or two sub-dominant birds that help fight off other gobblers. As the breeding season winds down and the hens are nesting, the gobblers will roam in search of willing hens and/or hens that have lost their nest and are ready to breed again. The gobblers eventually lose interest and begin flocking together in bachelor groups once again while the hen goes about incubating her clutch of eggs in leaf-lined indentions in brush or woodlands. When the young hatch, the mothers again form their flocks.
The courtship of the male turkey is dazzling to watch. It begins before sunrise with loud gobbling while still on their roost. He tries to attract as many hens as possible before he flies down, usually about 15 minutes before sunrise. He begins his courtship display by strutting and gobbling. The head of a sexually aroused adult gobbler quickly turns a bright red, white, and blue combination. He will spread his tail, swell out his wattles (the loose skin under his chin), and rattle his wings. Ah, love! Makes you crazy.
Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.