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November 17, 2016

A group of turkeys is referred to as either a rafter or a gang.  So this Thanksgiving, when celebrating with your own gang, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but, as Benjamin Franklin said so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition.

At the founding of this nation, Benjamin Franklin wrote his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache, endorsing the turkey as the national bird. He believed the turkey to be an honorable and noble fowl and the perfect representative of our new and free nation. Today this very same nation continues to honor this bird as the symbol of a plentiful feast and prosperity. And of course, every year on the morning of Thanksgiving, one special turkey is invited to the White House for an official presidential pardoning.

wild turkeys in Texas
Two wild turkeys in Texas. (Public domain.)

USGS is interested in turkeys as well. Wild ones, that is. The Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units in Alabama, Mississippi, and New York, Pennsylvania have conducted research on the forestry practices that native wild turkeys across the United States.

These and other research units support natural resource management decisions through research, education and technical assistance. The Units, established in 1935, enhance graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences and aid important research between natural resource agencies and universities.

Turkey Research

Due to restoration efforts of wild turkey species over the past 75 years, turkeys are now found nearly everywhere they occurred when the Pilgrims arrived.  These restoration efforts have been supported by funds from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act.

“Research in Mississippi has centered in providing management agencies and the public with reliable information on landscape level aspects influencing wild turkeys and tools to manage their populations,” says Francisco J. Vilella, a USGS research scientist at the Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

“Today research on turkeys is not about restoring populations, but doing a better job of managing them for society,” says Angela Fuller, a USGS research scientist at the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

Image: Wild Turkey
A wild turkey perches on a rock dike in the Missouri River to get a closer look at USGS boats fishing for sturgeon.  Aaron DeLonay, USGS. Public domain.

In Pennsylvania, turkeys are everywhere — from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the most remote state forests. Turkeys are an important game species to sportsmen, and wild turkeys are often the star at many a Thanksgiving dinner.

“Research at the New York and Pennsylvania Units not only helps ensure a sustainable population of turkeys for hunter harvest, but it also ensures there are opportunities for all citizens to view and enjoy wild turkeys,” says Duane Diefenbach, a USGS research scientist at the Pennsylvania Unit.

In addition, research scientists at the Alabama Unit are conducting a long-term research project for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to inform management of the state’s eastern wild turkey populations.

A Turkey’s Feast

Though the turkey becomes the main course of one of the most filling meals of the year, turkeys themselves have  a pretty filling diet. Turkeys are omnivores with a diet that consists of both plants and small animals. These large birds forage for food on the ground where they feast on acorns, nuts, berries, insects, lizards, salamanders and snakes. To digest this varied diet, turkeys have an organ called a gizzard that acts as a muscular chewer or food crusher. They also consume small stones or pebbles to help the gizzard do its work.

Dressing the Turkey

A strutting wild male turkey
(Public domain.)

Similar to other birds, the male has the fancier plumage, or feather pattern; their skin has beautiful hues of red and blue, which they display to attract females. In addition to different-colored breast feathers, male turkeys exhibit a long “beard” (actually special feathers) growing from the center of their chest.

Breeding and Harvest Seasons

Fall and spring are the two harvest seasons for the wild turkey in many states. Though both seasons are carefully monitored by state wildlife agencies, the fall harvest can affect population trends because both males and females can be harvested – only males are legally hunted in the spring. The numbers of females that survive to breed and rear young are critical to whether a turkey population expands or shrinks. Fortunately, there are more turkeys today (over 200,000 in Pennsylvania alone) than there were one hundred years ago.

The Pennsylvania and New York Units are collaborating in the development of a model to help make effective, science-based decisions for fall wild turkey hunting seasons.  Diefenbach noted that because New York and Pennsylvania are affected by similar wild turkey management issues, the two states were inspired to join forces in tackling the management problem.

In addition, research in these two states will explore how changes in the length of fall hunting season affect the harvest. As an example, Duane Diefenbach, noted, “Understanding the effect on hunter harvest by changing the season’s length by one week will help state wildlife agencies make better decisions when it comes to setting hunting regulations.”

In another Coop Unit study, researchers in Mississippi examined how weather conditions in the northern and southern portions of the state influenced spring gobbling behavior of wild turkeys and how this related to the hunting season framework. Other studies used information collected by turkey hunters and biologists from state and federal agencies to develop tools for predicting statewide gobbling activity.

Habitat and Range

A wild turkey’s range is roughly 400-2,000 acres (0.625-3.125 square miles), and the bird can cover up to 2 miles per hour while feeding. Typically, a wild turkey requires three types of habitat to survive: a nesting habitat, a brooding habitat and a winter habitat with an abundant food source.

Turkey hens begin to nest before the new growth begins in the spring, and require residual cover from the previous years to protect their young from predators. Nesting habitats generally consist of low brush that obstructs visibility between ground and about 3 feet high. In woodland areas, turkeys will nest at the base of trees, by fallen logs and boulders, and by any other physical feature that may provide additional concealment.

Female wild turkey with chicks
Female wild turkey with chicks. USA(Public domain.)

Brooding habitats need to be sufficient for the newly hatched turkeys to grow and develop. These areas consist of mainly grass and small plants, which are typically abundant with insect life for the young to eat. They must also be near brushy and wooded areas to be used for escape cover and roosting overnight. The ideal habitats for developing juvenile turkeys are orchards or groves of trees that are spaced widely enough for sunlight and are mowed only ones or twice each year.

A good winter habitat depends on an abundant food source, thermal covering for roosting and protected travel corridors. Places where groundwater comes to the surface are ideal because they provide drinking water, and melt the snow, giving turkeys access to the plant and animal life buried beneath it. Conifer trees and shrubs also provide covered travel corridors to navigate warmly and safely through the land.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

A group of turkeys is referred to as either a rafter or a gang.  So this Thanksgiving, when celebrating with your own group, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but as Benjamin Franklin did so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition.

Image: Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
Three members of a flock of wild turkeys beside a cypress pond in east central Florida. (Credit: Randolph Femmer, USGS. Public domain.)

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