Wild turkeys live here during the winter months and each spring I am serenaded by males, some of which display outside my door! This year has been especially rewarding because I have had about 40 turkeys who hang out around the house all day long roosting outside my door in the Mother pine or down by the brook. Protected by the boughs of hemlocks across the stream the turkeys hide out on windy days only appearing to beg for seed early in the dawn hours and again in late afternoon. Tut – tut they intone as they appear outside the window. If I am busy their calls rise an octave or two in what I suspect is impatience. “Feed us now” I think I hear them say as they stare in at me with marbled beady eyes. As soon as I open the window they scatter, clucking, splayed feet sinking into the last three inches of snow, but reverse directions almost instantly as others suddenly appear from all directions at once. No one wants to miss a feast! Muted twittering suggests contentment, I am quite sure. But seeds disappear at an alarming rate.
After eating the birds retire to bask in the sun preening their feathers if the weather permits. I can see groups clustered from every room in the house when it’s mild. On days like yesterday with a wind chill of twenty below they disappear almost instantly retiring to the protection of the gorge through which an open brook still runs.
This year I have noticed some changes. The turkeys normally split into male and female groups, each with its own hierarchy. For some reason this winter the two sexes have merged with each group having a dominant male turkey or two along with younger males and females. This blending of males and females is normal in the spring when one or two males will appear with a number of hens. But here this doesn’t happen until late March or early April so the naturalist in me is a bit baffled. Could the bizarre changing weather have something to do with this shift? Last week it was 60 degrees here during the day. For the last two days the temperatures have hovered well below zero at night barely reaching the teens during the afternoon .Could continuous freeze – thaw be responsible?
I have noted other changes. In mid February the males began to develop a bluish color on their faces and their gullets turned pink. The increased blood supply precedes spring mating when the heads of the males are striking – blushing blood red and cobalt blue. The males also started gobbling as they dropped their wings, another behavior also associated with preparation for mating.
Last week another sudden change. One morning only four males appeared tut tutting at the window. After hoovering the seed they started gobbling! This group included the male I have named the king because he struts around the house like he owns it! Where was everyone else? It wasn’t until late afternoon that the rest of the turkeys showed up for food. The next day all the turkeys came together just like they had been doing all winter.
Wild Turkeys were extirpated in New England because of hunting and were re- introduced from a stock of wild turkeys in NY ( James Reddoch). Now they are plentiful. Other sources inform me that their natural habitat is similar to mine with a field, forest, and running water but I also learn that they like mature oaks which is not surprising since acorns are a turkey staple… hmmm no mature oaks here although I do have wild cherry trees, beech and ash.
I have seen turkeys fly or climb into the branches of deciduous trees to feast on buds, and my guess is that they also eat the buds of the hemlocks, but during a winter like this one we have had so much ice that besides buds they have little to eat. They helped strip every fruit tree on this property of berries last fall along with the grouse. Evergreen ferns and club mosses are also foods they like but here they are hidden under piles of freeze- thaw snow.
In the summer turkeys add insects to their diet for extra protein which is needed for raising healthy chicks, so I am wondering if they also seek insects in the trees they visit. We don’t think about having insects around all winter but many do survive because they have their own kind of antifreeze. It was shocking for me to learn for example that my beloved chickadees supplement their winter diet with insects by 50 percent.
The primary reason I feed turkeys is because I am concerned about their food supply; I also feed them to say thank you because I eat domesticated turkey too. But in the end I feed these birds because I am so attached to them as well as being fascinated by their behavior.
After mating the hens lay their eggs on the ground in piles of old leaves or tall grasses ( around here no grass is cut so this is where they nest ). Four to more than a dozen or so eggs are laid and incubated by the hens for roughly a month. When the chicks are born they are already fluffed up with tawny down. Mothers gather in groups of two or three to raise their young ones. Around here I usually have a couple of hens with chicks. Last summer I watched the two families hiding in the hay ferns as they made their way to the brook where a little stone beach awaits them. Watching with binoculars I laughed while peering at the antics of the little ones. I keep track of the number of children. Last year only one was lost to disease or a predator. The year before I only had one female who birthed nine chicks and ended up with four. Foxes and coyotes both use this area to hunt and I also have goshawks who swoop down jet-like to snatch away my songbirds with a vengeance.
This year the turkeys who live here have become beggars appearing at my windows whenever they catch sight of me! If I fed them as often as they would like I would not be able to feed my dogs or myself.
Turkey watching can become addictive, I have discovered, when so many are ready to entertain. Especially if you offer them tidbits. Try it and you will see what I mean.