Turkeys: Meleagris gallopavo
The Florida wild turkey is best distinguished from the eastern subspecies, which it closely resembles, by its darker wing feathers. The white bars on the primary wing feathers are narrower than the black bars and are irregular or broken.
Florida is home to the Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola) and the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). The Florida wild turkey is found only in peninsular Florida (figure one). North of the peninsula it intergrades with the eastern subspecies.
Wild turkey hens in Florida typically begin laying in late March or early April. Clutches average 10.3 eggs and take approximately 12-13 days to lay. Eggs hatch after 25-26 days of continuous incubation. Poults will roost on the ground for the first 14 days after hatching. During this period, approximately 70 percent mortality occurs, primarily through predation.
Only 45-50 percent of wild turkey nests successfully hatch. Most are lost to predators, although occasionally nests are lost by other means (agricultural activities, flooding, etc.). However, hens often renest if their initial nest is destroyed. Major wild turkey nest predators include raccoons, striped and spotted skunks. Other nest predators include opossums, gray foxes, coyotes and domestic dogs.
Predators are a natural element in a wild turkey's environment and attempts to control predators are usually ineffective and economically unfeasible. Efforts are better spent developing and maintaining good quality brood habitat which is often the limiting factor on wild turkey populations. Good brood habitat has 1-3 foot vegetation (grasses, weeds, etc.) open enough to provide unimpeded movement for young poults, yet dense enough to provide cover from predators. Good brood habitat also provides seeds, insects, and succulent growth for poults to feed upon.
Diseases are also a natural element in a wild turkey's environment. However, most disease outbreaks involve only a few turkeys and typically have little impact on the population as a whole. A common disease among wild turkeys in Florida is avian pox or "sore head." Avian pox is caused by a virus that infects most turkeys in Florida and is usually transmitted via mosquito and other blood-feeding insect bites. Symptoms include lesions, or "sores" on unfeathered areas (head, feet, legs, eyelids, etc.) and/or in the mouth and upper respiratory tract. Mosquitoes can transmit this virus for up to 4 weeks after feeding on an infected turkey. Avian pox likely causes or contributes to the death of some wild turkeys each year, but not in significant numbers.
Occasionally, landowners express concern that there may be "too many turkeys" on their property. This is motivated by anxiety that there is a direct link between wild turkey population density and disease outbreaks. Disease spread is indeed related to population density for many animal populations, but there is little evidence that this relationship occurs in wild turkey populations. This may be due, in part, to the social nature of wild turkeys. They are gregarious animals and exhibit flocking behavior regardless of density (i.e., individual to individual contact occurs whether there are many wild turkeys or only a few). Therefore, there is little reason to harvest wild turkeys for the purpose of controlling or preventing disease outbreaks.
Concerns have also been expressed over sex ratios in wild turkey populations. Most people are familiar with the need to maintain a sex ratio "balance" in deer herds. As a deer herd increases to the habitat's carrying capacity it begins to degrade the habitat. Basically, deer density affects habitat quality, reproductive rates, and health of the herd.
Wild turkey populations, however, function differently. Their densities are not known to affect habitat quality, reproductive rates, or health of the flock. Approximately 30-45 percent of a turkey population each fall is composed of young and, in a stable population, about that many adults die each year. Thus, the population replaces itself every 3 or 4 years. Sex ratios of young wild turkeys remain approximately 50:50 regardless of habitat conditions or population densities. If an imbalanced sex ratio does occur, it should pose no serious population problem due to the continuous and relatively rapid population turnover rate.
Hen harvest to reduce population levels is unnecessary and can be detrimental to the population as a whole. While areas with good turkey populations can withstand limited amounts of hen harvest without impacting the population, the number of turkeys available for harvest is closely linked to that year's reproduction. During years with good reproduction, a higher number of turkeys can be harvested with no adverse impacts on the population. However, during years with poor reproduction, there are fewer young available to be harvested and hen harvest would consist of adult birds, which could adversely impact the population since adult hens are more successful in raising offspring. Moreover, to successfully implement hen harvest would require annual turkey population surveys, which are difficult to conduct adequately, are labor intensive, and costly, making such a program unfeasible, at least on a large scale. Further, since turkeys are not known to over-populate and do not damage their habitat, there is no biological justification for pursuing hen harvest to alleviate such perceived problems. Generally, individuals with areas supporting large turkey populations are fortunate and should not be overly concerned with an abundant population.
If you have any questions regarding turkey management, contact the FWC regional office nearest you. You may also e-mail the FWC or call at 850-488-4676.
Wildlife Viewing Information
An adult male wild turkey is heavy-bodied and larger than the female. The skin on its featherless head is pinkish-red with red caruncles (wattles) on its throat and neck, a dark beard on its breast and dark brown or bronze iridescent feathers. When the male is excited, during courtship for example, the skin on its head turns bright blue and white, and the caruncles become swollen and turn bright red. The female is slimmer and duller, with a blue-gray head and neck that lacks the prominent red caruncles of males. Females usually do not have a beard, but if one does, the beard is much thinner and smaller than on males. During courtship, the male struts, fans out its tail and gobbles. The female builds a nest on the ground by scratching out a shallow depression hidden in taller brush or beneath a shrub, and lines it with grass and dead leaves.
Turkeys are powerful fliers, especially for short distances. Their wings are designed for short, fast flight, but by alternating gliding and flapping, they can cover a mile rather easily. Speeds of up to 55 mph have been observed. To conserve energy, however, turkeys primarily walk. They spend much time on the ground, hunting for acorns, seeds, fruits, insects, leaves, and small vertebrates. Turkeys are wary and will run away or fly to a tree to escape danger. They prefer open forests and forest edges and occur throughout Florida in suitable habitat.