Wild Turkeys: Toms have loose morals!

Do wild turkeys mate for life? Can turkeys fly? What do wild turkeys eat? Do they know about… well… Thanksgiving? These are some things I’ve wondered about wild turkeys. I decided to go exploring around central Minnesota, where wild turkeys are plentiful.

My nature outings have allowed me to see several flocks of wild turkeys in various locations. One day, I was driving north of Brainerd, Minnesota and there were several turkeys crossing the road. I slowed and waited. I was the only car, so I didn’t have to worry about traffic. The birds, however, were very worried. As I approached them and rolled down my window so I could get a better look, they took off running. One of them even flew. (Chicken!)

I noticed there weren’t any male turkeys in the group. Where were the toms? I did some research and found out fall turkeys typically segregate by gender. The males and females don’t work as one society; they have separate hierarchies. Sort of like the school dances of my youth: the girls hung out with the girls and boys stayed on the other side of the gym. 

It was always a thrill to watch the first boy cross the floor and ask one of the girls to dance. It was never me. I wasn’t at the top of the pecking order amid girls my age. Shy, you know. I’m pretty sure if a boy had tried to approach me, I wouldn’t have noticed since my eyes mostly stayed fixated on my shoes. (Don’t worry, I grew out of it.)

Nice looking tom turkey!

Did you know toms (male turkeys) are polygamous? They mate with several hens in the breeding season, which is during springtime. They no longer hang out with the other males but split up and start making moves on the hens. Yup. I knew the type in school. Again, I didn’t need to worry. (Remember, no eye contact!)

During my turkey-seeking expeditions I’ve sometimes gone out early in the morning. Since I found out the large, clumsy birds do indeed fly, I wanted to see them do it as a group. It wasn’t just the scare I gave a hen that day from my car that displayed a turkey in flight, they do it each evening; they roost in trees. It amazes me the big birds can lift themselves into tree branches. I’ve read they don’t get up very high at first but land on a low branch and hop to higher levels. I’ve never witnessed them going to bed, but one morning I was lucky enough to see them descend. 

I was walking along a road, not looking for turkeys at all. Suddenly, a rafter of turkeys flew from some nearby trees, down into the woods. It both surprised and delighted me. Nature is always doing that! Surprising and delighting. I figured it was time for their breakfast. I wasn’t sure, at first, if wild turkeys were plant or meat eaters. Turns out they’re both. They eat nuts, seeds, plants, bugs, and worms (yuck!), among other things, like grit (for digestion). I read turkeys will even eat small reptiles (double yuck!). 

Another day, as I watched a wild turkey forage in some grass, I thought about the irony of the upcoming holiday: Thanksgiving. Turkeys are both predator and prey. They are eaten by owls and eagles, coyotes and foxes, and (of course) humans. I’m guessing the turkey in the grass didn’t realize the danger since it seemed at ease, although I kept my distance. I didn’t want to scare it off, a beautiful specimen of a tom. I’ve tried many times to get close to any wild turkey without success. They are wary of humans (with good reason).

The days are growing shorter with the pending winter. While fall turkey hunting is a thing of the past, I watched the tom and my thoughts mentally jumped ahead to springtime, when turkey hunting is more popular. I promised myself to try and get out this winter and watch turkey behavior as it changes throughout the months. I want to find out if I notice a shift in their patterns, see if it was obvious when the males begin to cross the “gym floor.” Like each spring, the males will be on the move and looking for a female (or three…). 

I wonder if I could tip off the wild turkey hens. “Hey, girls, come over here. You know that tom over there? He’s not looking at one of you, he’s looking at ALL of you. Quick, look down at your feet!”