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The Wild Turkey - Almost the US National Bird

by Geoff Carpentier

My wife and I have had the unique opportunity (at least to us) to share our yard with three families of wild turkeys this year! These birds join with other broods after the young have hatched and moved in loose flocks through their communal territory. In our case, this included our yard and the yards of at least six adjacent neighbours. The thrill of seeing 11-15 of these great birds, daily this summer, has been a delight to all of us!

When I started birdwatching, about 60 years ago, Wild Turkeys, as they’re correctly known, were exceedingly rare in Ontario, and one had to go to the Thousand Islands area, near Gananoque, to find them. So why are they so common today?

Let’s step back for a minute. First of all, Wild Turkeys are native to Ontario, and co-existed with Indigenous Peoples and settlers alike, until the early 1900s, when overhunting and land clearing resulted in their extirpation from Ontario (i.e. extinction on a local level, as they still persisted elsewhere in their historical range).

Starting in 1984, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources initiated a program, to reintroduce them into Ontario, to provide a new game species for hunters. Initially, small flocks were brought, from select US locations, and released in southwest Ontario. Once this was proven to be successful, subsequent release projects were initiated in Renfrew County in 1997. Then, they did extremely well, and today, over 70,000 birds range across much of Ontario.

When they lived here historically, Wild Turkeys were uncommon and occurred only in the dense mature forests of southwest Ontario, avoiding open and agricultural areas. The birds introduced in the 1980s came from different stocks and were content to forage, not only in forests, but also, in agricultural fields and residential areas.

Turkeys, in part due to their burgeoning numbers, damage the understory of forests. This is because they scratch and scrape the soil, over a large area, looking for nuts, seeds or insects, and the forest community which pre-existed them is not able to effectively cope.

They nest differentially, depending on where they live. Southern US populations can start the breeding cycle in January, for example, but here in Canada, courtship doesn’t begin until late February or early March. After copulation, the female chooses a simple nest site, often in the forest near the base of a tree or out in an ungrazed pasture, sometimes near a small bush. Up to 26 eggs can be laid in a single nest, but this is likely due to what is known as egg dumping, where more than one female lays her eggs in the same nest. Usually, only the original nest owner will incubate the eggs, but occasionally, two females might participate. This latter behaviour is not well documented.

During the early part of the egg laying cycle, the female lays her eggs a day apart, such that, egg one is laid, then 2 days later, egg two is deposited. The fourth through final eggs are laid on consecutive days, and incubation begins about the time the last egg is laid. Onl the female takes part in the nest construction and the subsequent care of the young, although males may linger nearby, hoping for a second chance at mating. This, however, would only occur had the original nest failed.

Food consists mostly of nuts, berries and seeds from various plants, but a small portion (about 10 percent) is comprised of insects and small cold-blooded vertebrates such as salamanders. Feeding is accomplished in various ways but typically involves scratching and clawing at the soil, to expose nuts and insects in the leaf litter.

One unique behaviour we have witnessed in our own yard is the side-by-side march of a flock of birds through a short grass meadow, basically flushing prey such as crickets and grasshoppers. The dominant female leads this hunting party as it advances across the field.

One final note: Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as the National Bird of the US, but the Bald Eagle won out; it seems like a good choice!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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