Wild Turkey Parenting

A male turkey strutting for females just off camera.

A male turkey strutting for females just off camera.

The spring is an exciting time in the life of a wild turkey.  After a winter spent in same sex flocks, larger female flocks will break into small groups of about 4 birds and males will separate and find a group of females to follow.  Sometimes however as many as 4 males will attend a group of females, and the competition for breeding access can be intense.

As male turkeys prepare for the breeding season the colors of the fleshy parts of their head become very vivid, including bright red on the neck, brilliant blue around the eyes, and a white patch on the crown of the head.  The names describing the parts of a turkey neck are some of the more entertaining in the animal kingdom, and include caruncles, the folded and knobby fleshy parts of the neck and the snood, which is the erectile fleshy growth that starts on the turkey’s forehead and drapes over the beak.

Courting males will puff up and strut at any hint of an approaching female, and may even make chump or hum noises if they get really excited.   If courtship attempts come to combat between two males they will strike at each with wings and feet until one of the birds is able to grab the beak or snood of its rival.  At this point the birds wrestle with entwined necks until one bird is able to grab the back of the others neck and pin it to the ground.  At this point the snood of the loser retracts and he will twist free and run away.  The winner may just bask in his glory and return to courting females or give chase to the loser and run him off for good.

Once mating has occurred the male turkey’s investment in the family is over.  He will move on to find other females, but will not return to help with egg incubation or brood rearing.  Females will lay eggs in simple ground nests that are often just shallow depressions in the soil or leaves and incubate the eggs for about 28 days.  The young poults (baby turkeys) are covered in downy feathers and walk out of the nest and feed on their own within a day of hatching.  By 7 days old chicks will run from threats, by 9 days they will fly into low vegetation to escape, and at 14 days old an alarm call from the hen will send all of the poults flying into nearby trees.  The hen will roost with the chicks on the ground at night for the first week until the chicks can fly into a tree to roost, sheltering her poults under her wings and tail.

Hens will defend their poults from predators, sometimes in clever ways.  In the early spring near an old orchard in Oregon I observed a female turkey calling and running around with one wing falling to the ground.  She took a short awkward flight into a nearby field, but quickly fell back to the ground.  A bobcat came stalking out of the orchard and leapt at the turkey in an attempt to catch her.  The hen frantically flew just out of range before falling to the ground again.  This scene repeated itself several times as the two crossed the field, and just when I thought I was going to see the bobcat close in and kill the turkey the hen jumped up and easily flew back across the entire field to the place where she had hidden her poults in the grass.  The wing injury had just been an act, and the bobcat looked back with what could only be described as disgust on its face before trotting into the woods in search of easier prey.

More about Wild TurkeysCornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds



Eaton, Stephen W. 1992. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/022


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