Upland birds are known for several traits which distinguish them from other birds. They are chicken-like in appearance, and have short, rounded wings, short heavy bills, and heavy bodies. They stay on dry ground and seek cover in brush or woodlands. Typically, these birds do not migrate, but adapt to seasonal changes.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has returned to the Ohio landscape after many years of absence. This bird once inhabited forested areas of the entire state, providing food and sport for Native Americans and early Ohio settlers. As settlement continued and forest lands were converted to cropland, the wild turkey’s population dwindled to the point that no birds remained in the state by 1904.
The wild turkey is Ohio’s largest upland game bird, standing three to four feet tall and weighing up to 24 pounds. It has a slim build, long neck, and nearly featherless head. The body feathers appear drab brown at a distance, but are actually iridescent when the bird appears in good light; this iridescence gives the bird its true coloration--bronze with hints of red, green, copper, and gold. The large tail is brown with a black band at the tip. Adult males (gobblers) have a reddish head, a long, tasseled “beard” that dangles from the breast, black-tipped breast feathers, and spurs on the legs. Female (hen) turkeys, have a bluish head, usually no beard, buff-tipped breast feathers, and no spurs.
Turkey nests are most often in dense cover near an open area, and are made in a small depression in the ground and lined with leaves. The hen will lead the young poults to open areas for several weeks to feed. Turkeys usually feed in flocks of family units or groups of adults, scratching through leaf litter for insects, fruits, and acorns. Occasionally they will feed in a vine or tree. Most wild turkey broods will remain together for four or five months. Young females may stay with the hen until the following spring at the start of breeding season.
Wild turkeys are polygamous breeders, which means that males breed with more than one female. Breeding activity peaks in April, and their nesting period runs from mid-April through mid-June, with peak hatching occurring mid-May through June. A typical clutch has anywhere from 8 to 16 eggs, with 12 being the average. These eggs are incubated for 28 days, and the young are born precocial (eyes are open and young can move about shortly after hatching). Their first flight usually occurs at about 2 weeks. Though most females only have one brood per year, re-nesting is possible if the first nest was lost early in the incubation period.
Habitat & Behavior
Wild turkeys are very adaptable animals. Although they prefer mature forests, with substantial cover and suitable food sources, they can live successfully in areas with as little as 15 percent forest cover. The feeding area should include a mix of forbs, grasses, and insects. Wild turkeys make a variety of sounds, including a male’s gobble, the hen’s yelp, a poult’s peep, an alarm call that sounds like putt, and an assortment of purrs, trills, croaks, whines, and barks. The best known of these vocalizations is the gobble.
Research & Surveys
This highly prized game bird is found in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Highest densities occur in counties in portions of eastern Ohio with an optimal mixture of forests, pasture, and agricultural fields. Ohio’s statewide wild turkey population is estimated to be 180,000-190,000 turkeys. Ohio’s turkey numbers spiked during an excellent reproductive year in 2016. Birds from this cohort contributed to above-average spring harvest totals in 2017 and 2018. The poult index has been below-average each summer since 2017 suggesting statewide turkey numbers and spring harvest totals are likely to be below average during 2021.