Roaming wild

  • Standing on a tree stump, a wild turkey surveys Jim Perry's backyard in Shelburne, Mass. —Recorder file

  • A flock of turkeys make their way behind the “Monitor” building in East Concord last February. The flock used the sidewalk in the back of the building and then went back into the woods above the Merrimack River. Monitor file

  • If you see wild turkeys rummaging around, they’re probably just in search of food to keep them going. Monitor file

For the Monitor
Published: 12/4/2018 11:56:23 AM

Thanksgiving is behind us, but not all turkeys were destined for holiday feasts. There are plenty of wild turkeys still roaming throughout the forests, fields and in yards of New Hampshire.

If you have seen wild turkeys lately, you are not alone.

Ted Walski, the state turkey biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said, “You can’t go anywhere without seeing turkeys.”

It’s no wonder because there are about 40,000 Eastern Wild Turkeys that make their home in New Hampshire.

One reason turkeys are so common, especially this year, is because of the abundance of food last fall. Turkeys feed primarily on hard “mast” such as acorns and beechnuts and soft mast like wild apples and crab apples. When food is plentiful, the population increases. The relatively open winter last year also contributed to turkey endurance.

The dry spring this year helped ensure a high survival of young turkeys, called poults. Because turkeys nest on the ground, heavy spring rains can wash out nests or chill eggs and young. However, the dry spring reduced those hazards and enabled a sizeable number of poults to survive, averaging about eight per hen. In contrast, during the wet spring of 2017 turkey hens produced an average of only five poults.

It is likely that backyard birdfeeders have also contributed to the increase in wild turkey populations in recent years. Though turkeys once relied on residual crops in farm fields, especially the corn on dairy farms, with only 100 dairy farms remaining in New Hampshire, this source of food has become scarcer. Yet more people are putting out food for wild birds and turkeys have taken advantage of that supplemental food. In fact, 61 percent of the flocks that were reported in recent surveys were seen at bird feeders. These observations also provide opportunities for people to see their large avian neighbors at close range.

Nearby viewing enables us to see some differences between individual birds. Adult hens are about 10 pounds and their breast feathers have rusty brown tips. Their heads are a blueish-gray color and their legs have small button spurs. A small percentage of females (up to 5 percent) may have a “beard” – a clump of bristles that hang down from their chest, but this is generally a male characteristic. Males are also distinguished by their larger size (18 to 24 pounds) black-tipped breast feathers, a reddish head, fleshy protrusions under their chin and over their beak and long spurs on their legs.

The sexes spend most of the year apart, except during the mating season and in the winter when flocks can include adult males and females with their young of the year. Some of these combined families congregate in groups of up to 100. However, typical Merrimack County winter flocks range from 30 to 40 birds of varying ages.

Wild turkey sightings, or at least evidence of their presence, can also be seen on walks in the woods. As they are searching for food, turkeys scratch through the snow, scattering leaves and dirt. When they are done, the forest floor may look like a helicopter has touched down, but this food hunt is what keeps them going.

Just as turkeys search for food, they are also prey for coyotes, foxes and fishers. The population of these predators is likely to increase as they partake in their own turkey feasts. Predation and reduced food supply will likely bring the turkey population back down again in the coming years. These fluctuations in populations are natural but it wasn’t always so.

By 1854, the wild turkey population cycle came to a complete halt due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. There were none in New Hampshire. With the reintroduction of 25 birds in the southwestern part of the state in the 1970s and similar small releases across the state, the population has rebounded.

We know about the turkey population thanks to citizen observations. New Hampshire Fish and Game coordinates two annual surveys, the Winter Flock survey from Jan. 1 through March 31 and the Turkey Brood survey from May 15 through Aug. 31.

If you would like to contribute your turkey sightings, visit wildlife.state.nh.us/wildlife/profiles/wild-turkey.html. Until then, stay observant and you will likely be able to feast your eyes on some wild turkeys.




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