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Profile of Wild Turkey, From a Hunter's Viewpoint

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General Info:

The wild turkey has made an incredible comeback in population during the last century, and now enjoys a very dedicated following among hunters who crave the challenge of taking one of these sharp-eyed, wary birds.

My own turkey hunting experience has been marked by much more comedy than success, but it's given me more respect for the animal than I would have otherwise had. And it has helped me to better understand why millions of hunters long to spend their time hunkered stock-still against a tree trunk, making turkey noises and getting cramps where they didn't even know they had muscles.

Terminology:

Male: Tom or Gobbler
Young Male: Jake
Female: Hen
Young: Poult
Wattle: A flap of skin on the neck. Same color characteristics as the Caruncle (see below).
Strut: When a tom turkey puffs up his breast feathers and spreads his tail feathers like a fan, to attract hens and intimidate other males.

Gobbler Features:

The male turkey has some identifying features:
Caruncle: Brightly colored fleshy growths on the head & neck, which turn bright red when the tom gets excited.
Snood: A flappy piece of skin that hangs over a turkey's beak. Same color characteristics as the Caruncle.
Spur: A bony spike on the rear of each leg, which can be quite sharp and is used for fighting.
Beard: Grows from the chest below the neck. Consists of black feathers that resemble long coarse hairs. This grows from the chest, and grows longer with age.

Physical Description:

Wild turkeys are big birds. In fact, the turkey is the largest game bird in North America. Males can stand as tall as three feet and weigh as much as 25 pounds (averaging about 17 pounds), while females are not as tall, and average weight is 10 pounds or so.

Wild turkeys have long legs and their feathers are quite dark. Some of the feathers actually have an iridescent appearance, and can be quite lovely. The male is more brightly colored than the female. The tail feathers are often spread like a fan when the male is strutting, and he will also puff up his chest feathers and drag the tips of his wings on the ground.

Habitat:

Wild turkeys have been known to live in many different types of habitat, but they generally prefer wooded areas and roost in trees at night for protection from predators. They enjoy open areas for feeding and mating, and naturally this works well for protection from predators, because in the open they can see enemies approaching from a distance.

Subspecies/Range:

Wild turkeys have five subspecies, and each has a different home range.
Eastern: These birds live throughout all of the eastern half of the USA.
Rio Grande: These are found in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, and in some northwestern states.
Merriam's: Found in the Rocky Mountains and nearby prairies of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
Gould's: Found in southern areas of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as central and north Mexico.
Osceola: This bird is only found in the peninsula portion of Florida.

Nesting:

After mating occurs in the spring, wild turkey hens nest on the ground, and may lay as many as 15 eggs (generally one per day during the laying period). With occasional rearranging of the eggs, they are incubated in about four weeks' time. When born, the poults are covered with down and in less than one day's time they leave the nest and begin feeding themselves.

Diet:

Wild turkeys will eat just about anything they can swallow. Some of these foods include insects, acorns, berries, buds, and small reptiles. Most of their food is eaten off the ground, and they often use their feet to scratch leaves out of their way in search of a meal.

Communication:

Wild turkeys communicate using a wide array of different vocal calls, including gobbles, clucks, putts, yelps, whistles. The very visual act of strutting is also used by males as a form of communication, to attract females and intimidate other males.

Life Span:

The wild turkey has the potential to live as long as thirteen years or so, but wildlife authorities estimate that most never make it beyond the two-year mark.

Outstanding Traits: The wild turkey is remarkable in a number of ways, and most of these would never have been studied and understood as well as they are if it weren't for hunters. Folks interested in hunting these birds are largely responsible for the rapid climb of turkey populations over the past several decades, and organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation spend millions of dollars on conservation efforts and work closely with hunters to ensure a continued healthy population of wild turkeys.

Turkeys have acute eyesight and can spot movement quite readily. This, combined with their extreme wariness, has caused more than one hunter to hang his head and cry. They can (and do) run fast with their long legs, and will take wing and fly if they feel they can't outrun a foe, or just desire the security of perching in a tree for a while.

A turkey's sense of smell seems to be largely ignored by most descriptions, probably because it has been determined to be negligible and therefore not something that a turkey hunter must contend with. Avoiding their sharp eyes is the hunter's main challenge, and believe me, that's challenge enough.

Synopsis: The wild turkey is a much-hunted, much-respected member of the animal kingdom. It is probably second only to the whitetail deer in terms of its appeal to hunters desiring a challenge. This says a lot for the turkey, a twenty-pound package of wariness and angst that will likely keep hunters guessing for many years to come.

- Russ Chastain

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