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Wild Turkey Biology FAQs

A. Physical Characteristics

  1. How many feathers are on a turkey? An adult turkey has 5,000-6,000 feathers on its body, in patterns called feather tracts (pterylae). Its wings will each have 10 stiff primary feathers and 18 or 19 secondary feathers. And, its tail will have 18 large quill feathers.

B. Age/Sex

  1. Is my turkey a gobbler or hen? For the answer click here (PDF).

  2. What can I tell about a turkey from its tracks? Walking/running, male/female (PDF).

  3. Can I tell the sex of the bird from its droppings? Yes. Male droppings are j-shaped; female droppings are spiral or curlycue-shaped. Diameter of dropping increases with age of turkey.

  4. How old is my turkey?

  5. What is the turkey's beard made of? Turkey beards are actually comprised of bristles or filaments that appear to be hair-like, modified feathers known as mesofiloplumes. The individual bristles emerge from a single follicle, or papillae, and the number of bristles in the beard varies. Unlike feathers, beards are not molted each year.

  6. How fast do turkey beards grow and how long can they get? Beards grow at the rate of 3 to 5 inches per year but the length of the beard is limited because the end is worn as the turkey feeds in snow or even on dry ground. Beards exceeding 10 or 11 inches in length are uncommon in the northeast.

  7. Can turkeys have more than one beard? Yes. Less than ten percent of gobblers have multiple beards. The most common number of multiple beards is two. Gobblers with up to eight separate beards have been reported.

  8. Can hens have beards or spurs? On average, ten percent of adult hens have beards; a much smaller percentage has spurs. The rare hens with spurs often have a spur on only one leg. Hen spurs rarely exceed ½-inch in length.

  9. How long do turkeys live? The average life expectancy of a wild turkey is about three years. Some turkeys live much longer, but most wild turkeys die young. The record for a banded hen in the wild is about 13 years; one gobbler in Massachusetts lived to be 15. The record for a leg banded turkey in Pennsylvania in the wild is at least 8 years old. A youth hunter harvested the gobbler during the 2013 youth turkey season on a State Game Lands in Lancaster County. The male was leg banded as an adult during the winter of 2007 less than 2 miles from where it was harvested. It weighed 21.2 lbs, had 10.5" beard and 1.25" spurs.

C. Food and Feeding

  1. What is the turkey crop and gizzard? Turkeys have a crop—an enlargement of the esophagus in the neck area—where food is temporarily stored. Not all birds have crops; many seed eating songbirds, ducks and geese have no true crop. It is a special adaptation in birds that need to quickly swallow large amounts of whole foods, such as whole acorns, much faster than the stomach can accommodate. The crop of the turkey is rather large, allowing a large gobbler to eat a pound of food at one meal. The crop softens the food before it enters the gizzard, which is the muscular part of the stomach that grinds the food. A turkey's gizzard has been known to grind hard nuts such as wild pecans within an hour; however, harder nuts, such as hickory nuts, required 30 to 32 hours. Experiments have been done in which turkeys were fed glass, wood and metal objects, and by the following day, the glass objects were pulverized; the wooden objects worn down and the metal objects flattened. Tin plates that required 80 pounds of pressure to bend were crushed flat and partially unrolled, within 24 hours, in a turkey's gizzard. Metal tubes were squeezed flat by the turkey's gizzard. Similar tubes were put in a vise and required 437 pounds of pressure to flatten as the turkey's gizzard had done.

    Turkeys, and other birds with well-developed gizzards, swallow grit to aid in the grinding process; however, grit is not necessary to digest food, but it helps. The gizzard is thick and shaped like a biconvex lens, with the muscles arranged in bands. The inside of the gizzard (the koilin lining) is very thick and rough, and it is yellow, green or brown because of regurgitated bile pigments that produce the color. This lining is shed regularly. It also secretes a fluid that hardens into ridges that grind the food. This grinding action is a regular, rhythmic contraction. The gizzard also stores food until gastric juices penetrate the food sufficiently to start the acid breakdown of proteins.

  2. What do turkeys eat? Turkeys less than 4 weeks old—poults—require a high protein diet and feed predominantly on insects. Juvenile turkeys eat mostly plant material, with 15 to 25% of the diet consisting of animal matter. Adult diets are similar to those of juveniles. Summer diets include grass seeds, flowers, fruits, acorns and insects. In fall, acorns, grains, grapes, dogwood, beechnuts, and black cherry pits are incorporated into the diet. During winter, turkeys may eat fern heads, corn and buds. Springs and seeps become important feeding areas in areas with deep snow. In short, turkeys are opportunistic and may eat most anything, depending on what is available.

  3. How many pounds of insects will a turkey poult eat in a day? The volume of food consumed by wild turkeys on a daily basis varies by season and abundance. Many studies of wild turkey food habits expressed the volume in terms of cubic centimeters and grams rather than pounds. Certainly the volume of insects that can be consumed by wild turkey poults changes rapidly as the poults grow. Korschgen (1967) reported that domestic turkeys require about 0.03 pounds (13.6 grams) of food per pound of body weight each day to sustain weight. Wild turkeys are more active, but using this information a 10 pound wild turkey would require about 136 grams (0.30 pounds) and a 20 pound gobbler would require 272 grams (0.60 pounds) a day. I think those figures may be a little low- several reports of full crops weighing up to a pound have been reported. Korschgen reported based on personal communication with a researcher at the King Ranch that Adult Rio Grande turkey crops April-June contained and average of 96.8 cc of food and poults about 12.5 cc. July to September adults averaged 51.4 cc and poults averaged 17.0cc. What a cubic centimeter represents in terms of gram or pounds I don’t know.
    Based on the need per pound let’s say a one pound poult consumes about 0.03 pounds- less than an ounce of food per day and a four pound poult would consume about 0.12 pounds or about 2 ounces. While much of the diet of poults consists of insects, they also consume vegetable matter. This is a pure guess but let’s say a hen with a brood of four poults at age 8 weeks would consume about 0.72 pounds of insects and vegetable matter a day. If 90 percent of the consumption is insect that would be about 0.65 pounds (10.4 ounces). Insects don’t weight much so that’s still a hefty number of bugs.

D. Nesting

  1. Can bearded hens reproduce? Yes, bearded hens have been seen nesting and observed with young.

  2. When do turkeys in PA breed, nest and hatch? Breeding can begin as early as the end of March, when winter flocks disperse. This is the time when hens seek a nesting area and gobblers begin gobbling in earnest. A hen can be bred by the gobbler daily, but the sperm is held in the hen's oviduct for up to four weeks. One successful breeding is sufficient to fertilize the eggs for an entire clutch (sometimes two clutches, if the hen loses her first nest and successively re-nests).

    A hen turkey lays an egg nearly every day until her nest contains 8-15 (average of 12; younger birds produce smaller clutches). She will begin incubating constantly after all eggs are laid. The average Pennsylvania incubation date from a ten-year study, 1953-1963, was April 28. The date was determined by field personnel who aged all broods they saw throughout the summer months. More recently during a radio-telemetry study in southcentral Pennsylvania, the average incubation date was May 15, after a cold and snowy winter (1999), and, after a normal winter (2000), was May 8 (for adult hens) and May 13 (for juvenile hens; first year of nesting). Juvenile hens often breed later than adults.

    That 2000 nesting season began with the first egg being laid on April 12 and ended with the last hen hatching her nest on June 27. The first adult and juvenile hens began incubating on April 27 and May 8, respectively. Average hatch dates were June 6 for adults and June 18 for juveniles. One adult hen began incubating a second nest attempt on May 31 and successfully hatched on June 27.

    The 2001 nesting season began earlier than 2000, with the first egg being laid on April 4, and ended later with the last hen losing her third nest attempt on July 30. The first adult and juvenile hens began incubating on April 19 and May 1, respectively. Average incubation date of initial nests for adults was May 6 and for juveniles was May 11. Average hatch date for adults was June 3 and for juveniles was June 10. Many hens that lost their first nests re-nested. Average re-nest hatch date was July 9 for adults and July 11 for juveniles.

    The latest documented incubating turkey hen in Pennsylvania was recorded in 2008 in southeastern PA (Bucks County), where a dairy farmer mowing a hay field on October 9, 2008 found a hen turkey on a nest containing four eggs. The hen eventually abandoned the nest. It is not known whether the eggs were fertile, but we speculate they were not.

  3. How many times does a hen need to breed a gobbler to ensure all her eggs are fertile? Once. The gobbler's sperm is stored in the hen's oviduct, so that fertilized eggs may be laid up to four weeks after mating. One mating is usually sufficient to fertilize an entire clutch. A hen lays an egg nearly every day until her nest contains 8 to 15 (average of 12; smaller clutches by younger birds), and begins incubating constantly after all eggs are laid.

  4. Can a hen renest without being bred again by a gobbler? Yes.

  5. Where do turkeys nest? Turkeys nest on the ground.

  6. When do hens begin to incubate, and how long? A hen turkey doesn't begin incubating until she lays the entire clutch of eggs, and incubates it for 28 days so that hatching is synchronized.

  7. Does a hen roost in a tree while she's incubating? Most hens stay on the nest after they have begun to incubate. Occasionally a hen will tree roost early in incubation, but this is uncommon. Typically, hens stay on the nest at night, which makes her more prone to predation, one reason she conceals her nest next to a guard object.

  8. How many eggs do hens lay? 10 to 12 on average.

  9. What do turkey eggs look like? Eggs are oval and pointed markedly at one end. The smooth, dull shells are pale buff colored and are evenly marked with reddish-brown spots or fine dots.

  10. Are wet and cold springs bad for nesting success? Wet springs are associated with greater potential for predation of nests and hens may be more prone to abandon nests in wet weather. The reason biologists believe predation rates increase in wet weather has to do with scenting conditions. Wet hens may leave a more significant scent trail allowing predators to be more successful at finding nests.

  11. How many hens will nest? Of these, how many nests hatch successfully? Nearly all adult hens will attempt to nest in a given year. Studies of eastern wild turkeys indicate that between 75 and 100 percent of adult hens try to nest. Of those, between 30 and 62 percent will be successful at hatching a brood. Juvenile hens (one-year-olds) nest at a lower rate than adult hens, often nest later than adult hens and are less successful.

  12. If I disturb a hen off her nest, will she return? Whether or not the hen returns will depend on a couple of factors. The longer the hen has been incubating, the more likely she is to return to the nest if disturbed. In the first week or so of incubation, there is a greater likelihood that the hen will abandon the nest. If you flush a hen from the nest, the best thing you can do is leave the area quickly to minimize the disturbance.

  13. If I touch a turkey egg will the hen smell me and abandon the nest? Wild turkeys have a very poor sense of smell so the hen cannot detect human odor and abandon her eggs for that reason.

  14. Will a hen renest if her poults die? Rarely. There is only one research publication documenting this. The authors documented three occurrences of re-nesting after hens successfully hatched and lost broods. However, none of the re-nests were successful. All three broods had been lost within five days of hatching. (C.A. Harper and J.H. Exum. 1999. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) renest after successful hatch. Wilson Bulletin 111(3): 426-427.)

E. Wild turkey young

  1. What is a young turkey called? Young wild turkeys are called poults. Newly hatched poults are sometimes referred to as chicks.

  2. Can turkey poults fly? Turkey poults have no wing feathers when they first hatch and cannot fly. Within 10 days to two weeks they can fly short distances. Once their wing feathers begin emerging from their shafts, poults can fly to low-hanging branches and roost above ground at night.

  3. What do young turkeys eat? Young turkeys feed almost entirely on insects and insect larvae for the first several weeks and continue to utilize insects until well into the fall. Insects are a great source of protein that is much needed to sustain the fast growth and feather development of the poults.

  4. How fast do turkey poults grow? In the first few months of life, weight gain is steady and averages just over a pound per month. Between three and seven months of age, the same degree of weight gain happens every two weeks. Young gobblers will weigh approximately 12.5 pounds after seven months, and young hens will weigh eight pounds. After seven months, growth slows and weight gain is correlated with seasonal food availability.

  5. What is the normal survival rate of wild turkey poults? The proportion of poults that die in their first two weeks of life ranged from 56 to 73 percent in a number of studies of eastern wild turkeys. Most poult mortality takes place in the early part of their lives when they cannot roost in trees. Though these losses may seem excessive, turkey populations can grow or be despite such losses.

  6. Do young turkeys drown in the rain? Definitely not! This myth may have had its origin in domestic turkeys. Young domestic turkeys may crowd under a shelter or in the corner of a pen when heavy rains occur, causing some of the birds to be trampled or suffocate. This does not happen to wild turkeys.

  7. Are wet springs bad for young turkeys? Wet springs are less productive than dry springs. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. Young poults have difficulty regulating their body temperature in cold rainy weather and wet hens cannot brood (settle down and share their body warmth) their young as well when they are soaking wet.

  8. Why do I see very large flocks of hens and their young during late summer and fall? Turkeys flock together for protection from predators and to feed together on abundant food sources. When poults are about three weeks old, several family groups may merge to form a flock of hens and poults. In autumn, flocks often contain several old hens and their young, and occasionally hens that have not raised broods, for a total of 40 or more birds. Old toms usually remain apart, in pairs or trios. During early winter, family groups disperse and form new flocks by sex and age: hens, young toms and old toms.

F. Will turkeys destroy or eat ruffed grouse eggs? 

No. A study in Florida by Dr. Bill Palmer monitored 400 quail nests with micro-video cameras. Although the Florida study site had a large—30 to 60 birds per square mile—turkey population, the research revealed that "Not once ... did the researchers record a turkey destroying a quail nest or ... eating or killing a chick."

G. Do turkeys and ruffed grouse compete for food? 

No. The preferred foods of the two birds are dissimilar enough to preclude competition. During winter conditions—the most stressful period for both species—ruffed grouse feed primarily on the dormant buds of trees and shrubs, while turkeys are feeding on mast crops and waste grains. During summer, forage is readily available to both of these ground-foraging species as insects, grasses, seeds and berries are abundant. Turkeys are more "generalists" than ruffed grouse and, therefore, utilize almost all successional stages. Grouse are better adapted to make use of mostly early to mid-successional forests. Turkeys use this habitat type for nesting, escape and feeding. Nesting habitat for the two species is similar. Occasionally biologists hear people claim that turkeys take over grouse nests. In a five-year study of wild turkey nesting and survival in Virginia, only three nests were located that contained both turkey and grouse eggs. Who came first is unknown.

H. Can turkeys fly? 

Yes. By alternating strong wingbeats with gliding they may fly a mile or more.

I. How fast can a turkey run? 

Turkeys can run upwards of 12 miles per hour.

J. Can turkeys see color? 

Yes, the structure of a turkeys eyes indicate that they see better in daylight than in the dark and that they are quite capable of seeing colors.

K. How well can a turkey hear? 

Turkeys can hear low-frequency and distant sounds better than humans.

L. Do turkeys have a good sense of smell? 

No. The sense of smell is poorly developed in wild turkeys and many other birds.

M. Do gobblers strut at any time other than in the spring? 

Yes, strutting is not only a sexual display, but it is a display of dominance too. Gobblers will strut to intimidate subordinate toms at any time of year. In the fall when daylight length is similar to spring, gobblers will sometimes strut and act like it is spring. Even in the cold of winter, gobblers that encounter hens will strut to show off.

N. My friend claims that he saw a hen strutting. Is that possible? 

It certainly is possible. Strutting has been observed in turkey poults as young as one day old and both sexes can strut. In hens, strutting is usually a response to aggression by another hen or a response to some other strong stimulus. Few hunters can say they have seen a hen strut, but occasionally a spring hunter calling aggressively will bring a hen in strutting. Decoys sometimes bring out the behavior in some hens.

O. Breast sponge - When I cleaned my spring turkey there was red and yellow jelly substance on the gobbler's breast? 

Is this normal? Yes, it is normal. The gelatinous substance found on the upper breast—near the turkey's crop—is known as breast sponge. Gobblers develop the fatty layer of breast sponge in late winter as they feed heavily in preparation for breeding season. The fat deposit enables gobblers to have energy to spend little time feeding in the breeding season and lots of time displaying to impress hens. Breast sponge can be trimmed away as you clean the bird for consumption. If you refrigerate the bird the breast sponge will become more solid and easier to trim.

P. Vocalizations (Gobbling)

  1. Why do turkeys gobble? Gobbling is the song of the wild turkey. Males gobble to attract hens, and as a communication method.

  2. Do only males gobble? Most often it is the males that gobble. However, hens are capable of gobbling and do so occasionally.

  3. Do turkeys gobble only in the spring? No, we associate gobbling with the spring and attempts by gobblers to attract hens. Turkeys can and do gobble throughout the year. Toms gobble during the fall, though less frequently than in the spring. Occasionally, turkeys gobble in response to loud and sudden noises. This can happen at any time.

Q. Lone Turkey

The wild turkey species is, by nature, a flocking and social species. Being such, flocks maintain home ranges and recognize individual animals within each flock. They establish a 'pecking order' (like chickens) with dominant and subordinate individuals. Dominant individuals will peck at or chase subordinates, especially away from food sources.
There are two possibilities (or a combination) for this lone hen.

  1. She is a subordinate, and cannot compete in the pecking order of the flock. Instead of constantly being suppressed, she has chosen to interact no longer with the flock and to survive on her own. 
  2. She is an old hen that has been barren for a few years (did not successfully raise a brood, or did not attempt to lay eggs due to age), and, being without poults, she has no incentive to socialize (join a flock of other hens without broods). Barren hens typically flock with others without broods, whereas hens with young will form their own flock. Being an older hen, the other cohorts from her original flock may have all died. Often it is difficult for an unrecognized adult individual to join another flock. Wild hen turkeys typically can survive in the wild to 5 or 6 years old.