As I went walking in the far backyard the other day, this is what I saw crossing my path.
So I decided to follow him and see if he had any friends in the weeds.
Indeed he did. They were a wary bunch but continued to feed, scratch, and peck while I watched from a distance (and through a lot of dried weeds), finally getting close enough to see the marked differences between males and females.
Tom has lovely iridescent feathers on his back in brown, purple, gold, green, and of course the trademark featherless head and neck with “carbuncles” of warty skin that will change color to match the mood of the bird: blue for excitement, red for fighting, and there is some white in there as well. Males have a funny little bump above their beak called a “snood” that elongates during sexual excitement. The name alone makes it an interesting structure.
This guy was making haste to get away from me, but at least I got his gorgeous back feathers in focus while he strutted away.
The “snood” in a full-out breeding display can hang several inches below the lower beak. Here’s an example of a modest snood from Wikipedia’s entry on wild turkey:(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wild_turkey_closeup.JPG)
There were two toms and five hens in this group, which at first I thought was strange because one tom should have driven the other one off. But after reading a little about turkey behavior, it seems that reproductive success of both toms is higher if there are two, rather than one, and the two are often related (e.g., brothers).
Hens are much more uniform brown, with white heads, and really were not very sociable as they lunged for and pecked at each other to move away from a favored foraging site. However, they did watch each other carefully, so when one bird left a particular site, another bird when to work on it.
I love the way the bird on the log has tilted her head to keep an eye on what the one scratching around under the log might have found there.
Even the tom joined in the excavation around this fallen log; maybe acorns or other food items collected there over the winter.
Peak reproductive activity is right about now, but I haven’t heard gobbles from the backyard, so maybe they are going to nest elsewhere. However, I have seen hens and their chicks foraging in our yard in early summer, so I know they nest nearby.
Hens might lay 10-14 eggs, but because the incubation period is long (28 days) and they are ground nesters, the eggs and chicks suffer high predation rates. Nevertheless turkeys have made a great comeback since the early 20th century, when their population was estimated to have shrunk to 30,000 in the U.S. Loss of habitat and high hunting pressure were assumed to be the primary causes for their decline. It’s always a treat to find a group of turkeys wandering over the golf courses and in the woods and old fields.