Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), North America's largest gallinaceous bird, was almost extirpated in the early 1900's. Wild turkey populations have since recovered and flourished thanks to reintroductions and stocking efforts by hunters and wildlife agencies. In fact, wild turkeys now inhabit every state except Alaska. There are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America, including the eastern, Florida, Merriam's, Rio Grande, and Gould's wild turkey. The eastern wild turkey is the most numerous and widely distributed subspecies. It occurs throughout Georgia, and an intergrade of the eastern and Florida subspecies occurs across the extreme southern and southeastern part of the state.
The eastern wild turkey was found in Georgia's forests long before Columbus ever landed in the "New World." Wild turkeys were hunted and utilized heavily by Native Americans. William Bartram wrote of seeing large flocks as he traveled across Georgia during the late 1700s. Unfortunately, habitat degradation and unregulated market and subsistence hunting depleted wild turkey numbers during the late 1800s. The turkey population in Georgia reached its lowest point in the very early 1900s. As recently as 1973, Georgia's estimated wild turkey population numbered only 17,000 birds. That year, personnel with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources began an intensive turkey restocking program. Since then, more than 4,856 wild turkeys have been trapped and relocated to over 300 sites across the state. The restoration program, which ended in 1996, along with adequate protection and biologically sound hunting seasons has restored this grand bird to most of its original range.
Georgia's wild turkey population is now about 300,000 birds with huntable numbers of wild turkeys in all 159 counties of the state. In 2002, hunters harvested 27,418 turkeys. The return of the wild turkey to Georgia's forests is one of the greatest success stories in modern wildlife management.
A basic law of nature is that animal population numbers fluctuate over time, and wild turkeys are no exception. During the past two decades, many states have experienced tremendous increases in wild turkey numbers, distribution, and harvest. However, in recent years, turkey populations have declined in several areas. There are several possible explanations for these local declines, depending on the situation. Such reasons include heavy rains during peak hatching and early brood rearing, exceptionally high numbers of predators (especially raccoons), and habitat degradation. All of these are causes for population declines.
Excessive rainfall when newly hatched turkeys, called poults, are very young can increase their risk of sickness and led to poor poult survival. Georgia experienced population declines in 1991 and 1992 primarily as a result of excessive rainfall during the nesting and brood-rearing period. However, the summers of 1993-1996 were good or excellent recruitment years and the population quickly rebounded. Extremely dry summers can result in poor habitat conditions and reduce poult production and survival. Three of the worst years of turkey production on record were 1999, 2000, and 2001. Exceptionally high numbers of predators can affect reproduction in three ways: the predator may find the turkey nest and consume the eggs, the predator may find the poults before they are able to fly and take them, or the predator may take the hen.
Of the factors that impact wild turkey populations, habitat degradation is the cause for greatest concern. Without suitable habitat, nothing else really matters - the bird can't survive. Weather conditions will moderate, and high recruitment will result in rapid population rebounds. Predator populations, like turkey populations, fluctuate, and when predator numbers decrease, turkey populations will respond if other environmental conditions are right to support an increase. These relationships illustrate the fact that we all live in an ecosystem where everything is connected.
Georgia's turkey population has been rapidly increasing in numbers and distribution since the early 1970s. However, we have reached the point in many parts of the state where the increase has slowed or stopped because there are as many birds as the land can support. In these areas, we can expect to see variations in turkey populations due to the factors previously discussed. As long as the habitat is maintained in good condition there should be no cause for concern. In the long run, population numbers should stay relatively stable, even though they may fluctuate among years.
Spring is the season for renewal and replenishment for most living organisms. As such, so begins the annual cycle of the wild turkey. The onset of breeding is dictated by photoperiod length (day length or amount of sunlight in a 24-hour period) and is "fine tuned" by local environmental conditions. After spending the winter in bachelor flocks, adult males, known as toms or gobblers, will disband, establish a dominance hierarchy, and begin to strut and gobble in an effort to attract hens for mating. This usually begins in March, but can start in late-February or early-April. A gobbler will mate with as many hens as possible and a hen will mate with a gobbler more than once. Juvenile males, known as jakes, will also strut and gobble but are less successful at courting hens unless there are an inadequate number of mature males. On the other hand, most hens will breed and nest in their first breeding season. Hens are capable of retaining viable sperm for about two months. Therefore, all the eggs for an entire clutch and renesting attempt can be fertilized from one mating episode.
As the breeding season comes to an end, usually in April, hens construct ground nests and begin laying eggs. Nests are usually located near an open area such as an old field, logging road, or other opening. Hens lay about one egg per day until the clutch, usually 9-12 eggs, are complete. A hen spends more time on the nest as each egg is laid and partially conceals the nest with leaves while she is gone. Once laying is complete, continuous incubation begins and hens no longer conceal their eggs. Hens only take short breaks for feeding, watering, and defecating. The only other movement occurs when hens turn the eggs, which occurs several times a day. Incubation lasts about 28 days.
Gobbling and strutting activity usually increase during incubation as toms try to locate unmated hens or hens that experience nest failure. This "second spike" in tom activity is an excellent time to harvest a gobbler. Gobblers readily respond to the yelping of a proficient caller and are ready, willing, and able as this might be the tom's last chance to mate until next spring.
Identification of the sexes is important because only male turkeys may be legally harvested in Georgia. Gobblers, on average, weigh 17-21 pounds and posses black-tipped breast feathers giving the bird a dark, polished appearance. The tom's featherless head is white-crowned with varying amounts of blue and red coloration dependent on sexual excitement. Male turkey droppings are straighter and have a larger diameter than hen's and are J-shaped. Gobblers have a projection of hair-like bristles, termed a beard, on their breast and spurs on their lower legs. Beards grow continuously, about 3-5 inches per year, throughout the life of a tom, but the excess is worn off by abrasion when it drags the ground. On the other hand, spurs can obtain a maximum length of over 2 inches. Toms can have multiple beards and most have spurs. Spur length and beard length are somewhat related to age.
Adult males can be distinguished from juvenile males by several physical attributes. Beards on adult males are usually longer than 6 inches, whereas on juvenile males they are less than 6 inches (see photo to right). Jakes have rounded, blunt-pointed spurs less than 0.5 inch long and adults have curved, sharp-pointed spurs greater than 0.5 inch. Legs on adult males are usually pink in color and on juvenile males are usually grayish brown in color (see photo to left).
The best way to distinguish gobblers from jakes is to simply observe the tail feathers when the bird is strutting. An adult's tail feathers are equal in length and form a smooth, rounded edge when fanned (photo below left). In contrast, the 4-6 central feathers on a jake's tail fan will be longer that the others forming an uneven edge when fanned (photo below right). Using all these criteria in combination can aid a turkey hunter in the decision to harvest a mature tom.
Hens usually weigh 8-11 pounds, about half the size of gobblers, and possess rounded, buff-tipped breast feathers giving them a brown or tan coloration. The female turkey's head lacks the white crown of the gobbler and is a dull gray-blue with feathers extending up the neck and back of head. Hen droppings are smaller than those of toms and are spiral or loop-shaped. Female turkeys can possess beards, usually less than 7 inches, but this only occurs in less than 30 percent of the population. Unlike toms, hens usually do not have spurs.
Wild turkeys, like many other wildlife species, need a mixture of forests and openings to meet their seasonal habitat requirements. All habitat needs must be met within the bird's annual home range. Daily movements of turkeys may cover one to two miles and 200-1000 acres. Annual home ranges are very large, occasionally exceeding 12,000 acres. Quality turkey habitat is comprised of mature woodlands, with open understories and well developed midstories, interspersed with grassy or weedy openings. Woodlands provide food and cover, especially during fall and winter. They also provide roosting sites throughout the year. Openings, such as food plots or improved pastures, are used primarily during the spring and summer for brood rearing. Lack of brood range and contiguous mature mast producing forest stands are common limiting factors for wild turkeys in Georgia.
Quality brood range consists of weedy or grassy openings with vegetation 10-30 inches tall and scattered tress or shrubs that cover approximately 50 percent of the ground area. The trees keep the grasses from becoming too thick and provide a way for poults to escape mammalian predators. Preferred nesting cover is comprised of woody plants, primarily shrubs and small trees four feet or less in height, along with herbaceous vegetation within woodlands and along field borders. Ideally, nesting cover and brood rearing areas should be in close proximity, so that soon after hatching poults can be led by the hen to openings where they can forage for insects.
Moderate pasture grazing improves turkey habitat, but extensive grazing in woodlands reduces the woody understory needed for nesting cover. Openings should comprise at least 10 percent of the total area, but 25-50 percent is ideal. Openings should be managed through combinations of mowing, disking and planting. Some of the best choices for planting include summer grains and winter grazing mixtures. Openings should not be mowed during April through mid-July to avoid disturbing nests. Strip mowing grass fields from mid-July through September can improve brood range.
Wild turkey habitat considerations can be blended with even-aged pine management by maintaining mature forest stands and corridors with open understories. These areas provide fall and winter foods and facilitate turkey movement throughout the property. Pine stands can be greatly enhanced through combinations of thinning and prescribed burning. Trees should be thinned enough to place around 25-30 percent of the ground in direct sunlight at noon. Prescribed burning should be conducted in a mosaic pattern on a 1 to 3-year cycle so that one-third to one-fifth of the pine woodlands are burned each year. Sawtimber (30+ years) rotations are best.
It is important that the landowner maintain a continuity of open woodlands and open fields across the property. Streamside management zones, mature forest stands, thinned and burned pine woodlands, improved pasture management and high quality wildlife openings offer the greatest opportunities for blending turkey management with other resource objectives.