By 1920 wild turkeys were extinct in 18 mid west and northeastern states including Ohio. In many of the New England states they went extinct in the 1800’s. Turkeys are birds of the forest and when farms replaced forests they lost their habitat. Big male”Toms” at 15-24 lbs are easy targets for hunters and wonderful eating and over hunting occurred. Even the smaller hens at 8-13 lbs make a great meal. Hunters shot turkeys for the market in the 1800’s. The great drought of the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s plus the depression of the 30’s resulted in a lot of farm land going fallow. Gradually the forests returned and the turkeys began coming back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Turkeys like open forests with adjacent open areas. They like to feed early in the morning and again late in the day before flying to the trees to roost at night. They love acorns, beech nuts, pecans, hackberry, and the fruit of black cherry, wild grape, and spice bush. Seeds are very important in their diet, particularly ash, ironwood, witch hazel, hawthorn, pine, and flowering dogwood. They also eat grass and sedge seeds and stalks and in winter they take evergreens, ferns, bark and winter buds. As omnivores. salamanders, grasshoppers, insects, caterpillars, snails, frogs, toad, lizards and snakes are in their diet plus an occasional pebble to aid in digestion.
Actually there are six subspecies of turkeys. In Ohio we share the Eastern subspecies with most of the states east of the Rocky Mts. The Florida subspecies is only found in the southern half of Florida. Merrian turkeys are found in the Rocky Mt states with the Rio Grande turkey found in south central plains and into Mexico. Gould’s turkey is found in NW Mexico, and southern New Mexico and Arizona. The sixth subspecies from southern Mexico is now extinct but is the source of all of our domestic turkeys.
In the wild wintering turkeys gather in big flocks with a dominate Tom. By Feb in this area the Toms start strutting, fluffing their feathers, spreading a fan of tail feathers and gobbling to court the hens. The flocks are quite territorial at this time. Tom gobbling can be heard up to a mile. As the females become pregnant they go off by themselves to scratch out a nest site on the ground usually in cover near the edge of the forest. She will lay anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs in the nest, usually 11-12. After the last egg is laid she will start incubation. Near the end of the 26-28 day incubation she will “kuk, kuk, kuk”, to the eggs to bond too the poults. Turkeys have synchronous hatching of all eggs on one day usually about mid May. Poults are precocial, born with feathers, eyes open and able to walk and feed themselves.
By 1990 wild turkeys were found in all 48 contiguous states and Hawaii (introduced) with an estimated population of 3.5 million. By 2010 the population had risen to about 7 million. Hunting, usually in fall and spring, by over 3 million hunters in all 49 states, takes about 700,000 every year. Hunting licenses and the tax on hunting equipment have paid for a lot of the reintroductions as well as creating new refuges. I’ve even had wild turkeys in my neighborhood in south eastern Finneytown. Wild turkeys are a real reintroduction and conservation success story.