Wild Turkeys in Oak Woodlands

Oaks ‘n’ Folks – Volume 10, Issue 2 – December, 1995

Autumn makes many people think of the holidays and family gatherings. Traditional feasts this time of year often center on domestic turkeys served in a grand fashion. The domestic bird, raised in large flocks, is quite different than its wild counterpart. Domestic turkeys have a reputation of being less than brilliant, docile, slow moving creatures. The wild bird is the complete opposite of the culinary breed.

Keen eyesight, quick of wing and foot, agile, stately, regal are all adjectives that have been used by admirers to describe the bird that Ben Franklin once suggested as the national symbol. Once widespread and common, the wild turkey numbers plummeted in the late 19th century and was extirpated from much of its former range. However, through the work of many conservationists, the bird can be viewed today as a sterling example of restorationists efforts.

Introduced into California in 1877, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has spread throughout many portions of the state. Populations now occur from Humboldt and Siskiyou Counties south to Santa Barbara, Riverside and San Diego Counties. Two sub-species have been introduced. The most common, the Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia) is found mostly in deciduous riparian oak and conifer-oak woodlands. The other sub-species, M. g. merriami, or Merriam’s turkeys, are more often found in higher elevations in predominately conifer-black oak habitats. They are established in the higher elevations of the coast ranges.

Turkeys prefer habitat that is a mix of large trees with grassy openings near water. Rugged, hilly terrain may have played a role in predator avoidance, in California, adding to their success.

Their feeding habits are varied. Turkeys readily eat seeds, berries, leaves, mollusks, buds, acorns, pine nuts, and arthropods. A hen tending a brood will often bring her young to grassy opening during the summer to feed. The young are depended on grasshoppers and other insects during the summer months for protein and these openings are relied upon for foraging.

Turkeys are diurnal and active throughout the year. Populations in higher elevations will migrate between summer and winter ranges, sometimes over great distances (25-40 miles) depending on snow cover. They roost above ground usually in large oaks, ponderosa, Jeffrey, or foot-hill pine trees in sheltered, mixed aged stands of foothill oak-conifer habitats. Their dependence on free water regulates them to roost relatively near a permanent source.

Turkeys are polygynous with males gathering and defending harems of five or more females. Courtship begins in March and may continue through August. However, the peak of the breeding season is considered during May and June.

Turkeys, as are most birds of the order Galliformes, are ground nesters. A female will lay between 8-15 buffy, spotted eggs in a shallow nest lined with grass and leaves concealed in thick grass or woody vegetation in or near a forest clearing. The nest are often near permanent water. Incubation takes 28 days. The precocial young, as most species of this order, are active shortly following hatching and follow the hen closely for food and protection. Within a few days of hatching the young are able to fly and soon begin roosting in trees to avoid predation. Roost trees are a critical component of the habitat if turkeys are to be successful in an area.

Though an exotic introduction to California the effect (if any) to native species has not been evaluated. Turkeys appear to have occupied an ecological niche that was not previously filled by any other large, ground nesting species. Adults, young and eggs are susceptible to predation by ravens, crows, skunks, bobcats, foxes, domestic dogs and feral hogs. Turkeys are sensitive to habitat disturbances involving removal of herbaceous and deciduous plants, even-aged management of forests in large blocks, and removal of large late seral aged trees.

Turkeys are still be expanding their range in California since not all suitable habitat is considered occupied. They are capable of living near humans and many people actively attract turkeys by supplementing their diets with chicken scratch and other poultry feeds. The sight of a large tom strutting and calling during the spring courtship is spectacular sight that many people who are fortunate enough to have witnessed often recite and share.

Greg Giusti, North Coast Area IHRMP Advisor