Turkeys: history and status
I usually take a hike through some nearby forest first thing in the morning when home, about a mile or so if the weather is not too severe. Most mornings over the last two weeks I have been hearing a flock of wild turkeys around the same spot. There is a field where they like to browse for food, and where there are many oak trees nearby. There is a lot of mast (acorns, and other nuts) this year, and at the moment these turkeys have their choice of foraging grounds. On occasion, I see turkeys that haven’t yet moved from their night-time roosts, usually high up in a white pine tree.
Most likely, as you read this, you are preparing—or recently have partaken in—a Thanksgiving meal that included a turkey. Unless you are a successful hunter, you probably found a domestic turkey at the store or perhaps your local .CSA.
The modern domestic turkey is actually descended from one of six subspecies of wild turkey that were found in Mexico; the Spanish were the first to bring turkeys to Europe, where various breeds were developed. The English followed suit in the 16th century, and in the 1600s, domestic turkeys were exported to Jamestown, VA. There were many hybrids developed through the years; some breeds are notable for having white plumage. It was thought that the harder-to-pluck pin feathers would be less visible on a turkey with white plumage.
Turkey may be plentiful at Thanksgiving feasts, but how are the wild ones doing in our region? According to the PA Game Commission (PGC), turkey populations are slightly off their high of a few years ago due to a number of factors. A major one is a naturally occurring population balance after the re-introduction of birds by the “trap and transfer” used by the PGC a few years back.
A telemetry study of turkey hens was performed by the PGC from 2011 to 2013. One item monitored during this study was the time and cause of mortality. The study found that the largest mortality factor was mammalian predation (29%), and a full 36% of mortalities occurred during the nesting season. Turkeys are ground nesters and are vulnerable during incubation to mammals such as foxes, coyotes and feral cats. Even squirrels and chipmunks will predate unattended eggs. It’s not until two weeks or so after hatching that young turkeys (poults) can fly and roost in the safety of the trees.
Because of the hazards of the wild, most poults do not survive their first year, but those that do usually live anywhere from eight to 15 years.