Wild Turkey Biology and Management

 

History of Wild Turkeys in Ontario

 

Wild turkey releaseThe eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is native to Ontario and was historically common in southern parts of the province. It was extirpated from the province by 1909 due to unregulated hunting and the clearing of forests for agriculture in southern Ontario.

 

Early attempts to restore wild turkeys using pen-raised birds were unsuccessful. In 1984, Ontario began working with partner organizations to restore eastern wild turkeys using birds trapped in the wild from several U.S. states. These efforts were successful and led to an expansion in the number and range of wild turkeys. By the winter of 1986-87, Ontario began trapping Ontario wild turkeys and transferring them into unoccupied areas. Wild turkeys also continued to expand their range naturally. The last wild turkey releases in Ontario were made in the winter of 2004-05.

 

Biology

 

Eastern wild turkeys are found in and around forests where they generally roost at night in trees.  The exception is hens, who remain on the ground when incubating eggs and taking care of their young broods.

 

 

Interesting Facts About Wild Turkeys
 

Wild turkey nest with eggs
  • Adult male turkeys are called gobblers and adult females are called hens. Juvenile male turkeys are called jakes and juvenile hens are sometimes called jennies.
  • On average adult gobblers weigh about 8.6 kg (19 lb.) and adult hens weigh about 4.5 kg (10 lb.)
  • Several abnormal colourations have been observed in the feathers of wild turkeys. The colours include all-black, rusty-red and grayish-white and can affect all or parts of the feathers.
Wild turkey poult
  • It takes a turkey hen about 12 to 15 days to lay a complete clutch of eggs. The eggs are incubated for 26-28 days.
  • Wild turkeys are sensitive to disturbance during egg laying and incubation and may abandon their nest if disturbed while on the nest.
  • Young turkeys are called poults. They spend about the first two weeks of their life being cared for on the ground at night by their mother until they can begin flying short distances to roost at night in shrubs and trees.

 

Wild turkey hens nest in the spring beginning as early as April in Ontario. Hens typically select a nest site that hides them from view. They create a slight depression on the ground called a nest bowl; it is sometimes lined with grass or leaves. Adult wild turkey hens typically lay 10 to 12 eggs in their first clutch each year. If their first clutch is destroyed they may attempt a second clutch which often holds a smaller number of eggs. Some late nest attempts can continue into August in Ontario, or later in southern parts of the wild turkey's range in North America.

 

If a young wild turkey survives the first few weeks of life, its average life expectancy is about one to two years. Some individual wild turkeys have been known to live longer than 10 years. Predation is a natural and significant cause of death for wild turkeys. Predators of adult wild turkeys include coyotes and foxes and occasionally other mammal and bird predators such as raccoons and great-horned owls. Many predators, including skunks, snakes and crows, will consume eggs and poults. Wild turkeys and their young living near humans are sometimes killed by domestic dogs and cats.

 

Wild turkeys eat a wide variety of wild foods, including acorns, seeds, wild grapes, raspberries, green vegetation, insects and snails. In areas where natural habitats have been replaced by agriculture, wild turkeys may also feed on domestic grains, forages and berries. Young wild turkeys feed almost exclusively on insects for the first several weeks of life.

 

Wild turkeys have excellent vision and hearing, but appear to have a poor sense of smell.


Habitat and Range

 

Wild turkey in the snowHistorical accounts of eastern wild turkeys report the presence of birds in forests, savannahs and even prairies. When wild turkeys disappeared from many parts of their range in eastern North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the only place they remained was in large, contiguous areas of deciduous forest. Restoration programs have since confirmed that wild turkeys can adapt to a range of habitat conditions as long as there is some forest.

 

The ideal landscape habitat composition for wild turkeys has been reported as a 50:50 mix of forest and open land such as natural grassland or agriculture. This combination of habitat types provides natural food, roosting areas, nest sites, brood habitat and supplementary winter food in the form of waste grains in harvested agricultural fields. Wild turkeys have the ability to move long distances to access the resources they need. Typically, however, they do best when they have all they need within a smaller area.

 

The wild turkey's most specific habitat requirement is brood cover. Wild turkey poults, particularly during the first 3 to 4 weeks after hatch, require habitat that provides good overhead cover, is sparse at ground level for ease of movement, and has abundant insects. The lack of this specific type of habitat can sometimes limit what is otherwise good wild turkey range.

 

While wild turkeys do adapt as they expand their range northward, deep snow and extreme cold will prevent them from becoming established in some areas. Severe winters can also reduce wild turkey numbers in parts of their established range.  View a map of the Ontario breeding range of wild turkeys.


Management

 

Wild turkey populations are most dependent on how well hens survive and how successful they are at producing young. Established wild turkey populations can fluctuate significantly from year to year. Factors that affect adult survival include predation, severe winter weather and hunting. Predation, as well as inclement spring weather, can also affect reproduction.

 

Wild turkey harvestThe Wild Turkey Management Plan for Ontario outlines the province's objective for wild turkey populations as managing for population sustainability in southern Ontario and providing hunting opportunities where they exist in areas further north.

 

Hunting regulations that control the season timing and length, the bag limit and types of firearms allowed provide protection against overharvest. In addition, limited access to private land in Ontario means fewer hunters in some areas and can lower the harvest rate.

 

Ontario's first spring wild turkey season was held in 1987, and the number of Wildlife Management Units with spring hunting increased rapidly. The first modern-day fall wild turkey hunt in Ontario was held in October 2008.

 

Ontario's wild turkey hunting regulations are published in the annual Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary. Successful wild turkey hunters must report their harvested turkey by calling toll-free 1-800-288-1155. They must provide the requested information no later than 12:00 noon the day after the bird was harvested.