The Forest in Spring: The Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

With winter finally coming to a close, the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) breeding season is fast approaching. Turkeys are the largest bird in the forest and have the voice to match their size. The male turkey is commonly referred to as a “Tom” and can weigh up to 25lbs standing over two feet tall. Toms have a red, white and blue head with a dark brown body and adults have long hair like feathers on their chest called beards. The female turkey is often referred to as the “Hen” and has a gray colored head and dark brown body but is typically smaller in size. Both male and female turkeys roost in large mature trees each night to escape predators that may be roaming the forest floor.

As daylight begins to break in early spring, Toms will let out a series of powerful gobbles to both attract hens and let other males know of their presence. With breeding taking place primarily in April, Toms can be seen in groups or alone showing off their beautiful colorations walking back and forth slowly in on open areas. This behavior is called “strutting” and takes place all throughout the breeding season. Toms will puff themselves up to look bigger, spread their tail feathers into a fan and drag their wing tips across the ground. All of this in addition to gobbling makes for quite the display for potential mates. If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this behavior, it is one of the most fascinating sights in the forest.

After successfully mating the Hens will begin to secretively look for a safe nesting location. Hens prefer areas that provide good cover and protection from predators as they will spend the majority of the next four weeks on the forest floor incubating the eggs. A hen will lay 10-12 eggs per brood and after about 28 days the baby turkeys or “poults” will begin to hatch from the eggs. Poults are quick learners as they follow their mother away from the nest within 24 hours from being hatched. The mother often leads the poults to grassy areas where insects and other foods are abundant for the poults to feed on. Within two or three weeks the poults will learn how to fly and roost in trees like the rest of the flock.

-- Aaron Culotta