What we can learn from the wild turkey

What we can learn from the wild turkey

Frances Figart

If you traveled around in Western North Carolina or East Tennessee to visit friends or family and eat turkey for the Thanksgiving holiday, there is a high likelihood you passed a rafter of wild turkeys along the way. Though a group of them can also be called a flock, the term “rafter” is also correct and was adapted because when buildings were being constructed, turkeys often would be found perching in the rafters. 

Although sometimes we humans may call one another “turkey” as a comical insult, our species can actually learn a lot from Meleagris gallopavo. Turkeys are efficient communicators, they have a strong family or “clan” mentality, and they are superb collaborators.

Turkeys evolved more than 11 million years ago and are related to other game birds like pheasants, quail, grouse, and partridges. There are five subspecies of turkeys, each differing in plumage and range. They have keen eyesight, are born with innate knowledge of predators and landscape, and are talkative, gregarious animals.

Groups of males and females each have pecking orders where there is a dominant bird within the group and other birds are subordinate. Provided by Mark Gunn.
Groups of males and females each have pecking orders where there is a dominant bird within the group and other birds are subordinate. Provided by Mark Gunn.

“Turkeys communicate in various ways, from vocalizations to appearance,” says Michael J. Chamberlain, a professor of Wildlife Ecology with the University of Georgia. “It is believed that turkeys primarily recognize each other through these vocalizations and the appearance of their heads.”

Chamberlain studies the behavior of wild turkeys all over the southeastern United States. Of particular interest to him are the social hierarchies that influence how individual turkeys behave throughout their lives. 

“Pecking orders introduce structure into the flocks we observe,” says Chamberlain. “This structure is something we do not fully understand, but it clearly influences how they behave and interact throughout the year.”

Pecking orders begin to form when birds are only a few days old. Groups of males and females each have pecking orders where there is a dominant bird within the group and other birds are subordinate. 

“Turkeys constantly test these pecking orders, by fighting, pecking at each other, chasing each other, and so forth, seeking to challenge the dominant bird and move up in the hierarchy,” Chamberlain says. “These pecking orders dictate access to resources and breeding opportunities in the spring.”

Keenly aware of the presence of predators, turkeys will reduce their gobbling and move considerable distances to elude hunters according to Ryan Williamson, a wildlife technician with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Provided by Joye Ardyn Durham.
Keenly aware of the presence of predators, turkeys will reduce their gobbling and move considerable distances to elude hunters according to Ryan Williamson, a wildlife technician with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Provided by Joye Ardyn Durham.

Back when European settlers first came to Southern Appalachia, wild turkeys were plentiful. By the early 1900s, however, only a few were left, a decline that continued into the mid-century due to unregulated and heavy market hunting, rapid deforestation, and habitat destruction.

Thanks to an innovative trap known as a rocket net, biologists in the 1950s began to capture surviving individuals in various places and relocate them to suitable habitats from which the bird had previously disappeared. These relocation efforts continue today, with birds still being moved to areas of east Texas where populations have not done well.

Turkey researchers in Southern Appalachia are focused on ensuring that we have sustainable populations of wild turkeys in the future. Seeming to have a preternatural cognition of their near extinction in the not-so-distant past, the birds exhibit a keen understanding of the constant threat of predators, including humans.

“During spring the males will gobble to announce their presence on the landscape and hens will call or ‘yelp’ to let males know that they are present in an area,” says Ryan Williamson, a wildlife technician with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “But they will reduce their spring gobbling to near silence to elude hunting pressure. So, they are aware of the presence of predators and adjust accordingly to survive.”

An estimated 500 wild turkeys live in the park, but Williamson says the exact number is unknown. “The population does appear to be stable and healthy,” he says, “and seems to be growing every year based on the number of surviving poults seen along roadways.”

But over the past several years Williamson and other park wildlife managers have begun to observe some human conflicts with turkeys.

The male eastern wild turkey has dark plumage with striking bronze, copper, and green iridescent colors. Females are usually duller in color than males, which helps camouflage them while they are nesting. Provided by Warren Lynn
The male eastern wild turkey has dark plumage with striking bronze, copper, and green iridescent colors. Females are usually duller in color than males, which helps camouflage them while they are nesting. Provided by Warren Lynn

“In the park, where humans are not a predator of turkeys, we are seeing an increase in the number of animals that are habituated to people and getting easy meals form visitors,” he explains. “Most animals that have been fed by humans appear to lose their natural fear of people and learn to approach them for food, which most humans find threatening. These turkeys can be aggressive towards humans to acquire food, especially during the springtime when they are naturally aggressive towards each other and will fight to establish dominance.”

Wild turkeys’ success is linked to areas with abundant grasses and shrubby vegetation that grow low to the ground. These plants harbor abundant insects and seeds, which dominate turkey diets. 

The habitats where wild turkeys thrive are also critically important to other species, such as black bears who share their requirement for hard mast like acorns in the winter. So, managing parks and forest lands to ensure turkeys can thrive should mean success for many other important species.

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If you enjoy watching turkeys and learning about their behavior, check out “My Life as a Turkey” by Joe Hutto on YouTube and the book Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto on Amazon.

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