The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) may very well be the most iconic bird in North America. Particularly in the United States, where they occur throughout the lower 48 and Hawaii. Although they reside across a broad array of habitats, their nesting habits remain much the same.
Despite their proclivity for roosting in trees, when it comes to nesting, wild turkeys are exclusively ground dwellers. Brood hens build their nests by scratching a shallow depression into the ground, typically at the base of a tree or within dense thickets.
However, wild turkeys only remain on the ground as long as necessary. This position leaves even adult birds extremely vulnerable. Thus, as soon as poults can fly, a hen and her young move to roosting in trees.
We will discuss wild turkey nesting habits in greater detail below. Read on to discover more!
Wild Turkey nests are simple scrapes in the ground
Wild turkeys nest on the ground, typically in a pile of dead leaves near the base of a tree or in thick underbrush or shrubs. Nesting materials are not gathered, instead, turkeys use whatever is located at the site.
Specific nesting habitat varies based on region. Wild turkey populations in the northeast, along the Appalachian mountain range, and the Cumberland Plateau occupy hardwood and mixed conifer forests.
Populations in Florida nest at the foot of cypress trees or in dense saw palmetto and wire grass. Meanwhile, wild turkeys in the southwest nest in mixed conifer, fire sears, and mesquite habitats.
Although wild turkeys remain in their territories year-round and reuse the same game trails and roosting sites, they do not reuse their nest sites. Hens scratch out a new nest in a different location, every breeding season.
Close up of a Wild Turkeys nest at the base of a tree, with thirteen unhatched eggs inside
Wild turkeys are selective about where they nest. However, if the habitat is suitable, they may nest in backyards. Turkeys require fairly large nesting sites for their sizable broods. If you live on several acres with wooded areas or dense shrubs that are largely undisturbed, wild turkeys may choose your property for nesting.
Some wildlife organizations build nest boxes for wild turkeys in regions where populations are in decline. However, there is little evidence at this time that turkeys use these man-made structures. These birds are particular about nest site selection, and a box does not replicate locations these birds typically choose in the wild.
Wild turkeys' nests are at ground level. Although these large birds roost in trees, they do not build nests and raise their young above ground.
Three female Wild Turkeys, called hens, foraging for food
Wild turkey nests are simply shallow depressions on the ground, scratched out by the hen. Leaves from the surrounding area are added to the nest site during incubation.
On average, turkey nests measure about 20cm wide and 24 cm long. Some nests are wider and longer than average. Depth typically falls around 2cm.
Close up of a Wild Turkeys nest on the ground
Nesting season for wild turkeys varies based on region. In the southern United States, courtship typically begins in January or February, and the first eggs are laid in early March. Farther north, breeding season occurs later in spring (generally March to mid-April), which sets egg laying back to mid-April, or even as late as May.
Wild turkeys nest for about 28 days, from the time the last egg is laid to when the poults hatch. Once hatched, the female remains on the nest for another two weeks, until her young can fly. After this period, hens and chicks roost in trees at night.
The timing of egg laying largely depends on the region. Wild turkeys in the southern US typically lay eggs in early March. Meanwhile, farther north egg laying does not occur until mid-April or May.
Two male and two female Wild Turkeys
Wild turkey nests are quite simple. A hen constructs her nest by scratching out a shallow depression in the ground. Nest sites are generally located at the base of a tree in dense undergrowth or shrubs.
Turkeys do not gather nesting materials. Instead, they will use whatever is present at the nest site. Dead leaves are generally added during incubation.
Female wild turkeys build nests on their own. Males actually take no part in rearing young.
A flock of Wild Turkeys gathered together
Wild turkey eggs range in size from about 59 x 45 mm to 68.5 x 46 mm. Abnormalities, such as smaller than average egg size, do occur. Egg shells are smooth, with a matte finish. Colors range from pale to buffy-white, marked with reddish-brown or light pink dots.
Wild Turkey hens typically lay 10-12 eggs. One per day is average, although one day is typically skipped between the first and second egg.
Male wild turkeys do not incubate the eggs. Hens provide all of the parental care.
Close up of Wild Turkey eggs
Baby wild turkeys (called poults) will leave the nest 12-24 hours after hatching. However, they return to the nest at night for the first 8 to 14 days, or until they can fly. After this point, poults begin roosting in trees with their mother.
Male poults typically stay with the brood hen until fall, while young females may stay until the following spring.
Wild turkeys only produce one brood per year. Because poults stay with their mother for at least until autumn, hens do not have time to raise a second brood. However, if the first brood is unsuccessful, wild turkeys are likely to breed a second time in the same year.
Female Wild Turkey with two of her chicks
Wild turkeys only abandon their nest when necessary. If a predator approaches, female turkeys will flush in an attempt to draw the danger away from the nest site.
Female wild turkeys nest on the ground during incubation and until their young can fly (typically 1 to 2 weeks after hatching). During this time, the hen and her poults are extremely vulnerable to predation. As soon as the chicks can take flight, the family begins roosting in trees.
Wild turkeys roost in trees at night. They generally have a few roosting trees within their territory that they reuse.
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