Stillwater News Press


April 5, 2014

Pavos on the prairie

STILLWATER, Okla. — The wild turkey is a familiar sight across most of Oklahoma due to its size and tendency to flock in open areas. During fall and winter, flock size can be well over 100 birds that are often segregated with adult males (called gobblers) in separate flocks from females (called hens) and young birds (called poults).

Sometime in March, flocks begin to break up and dominant males join smaller groups of hens. It is at this time wild turkey become most visible as they frequently forage in areas that have green vegetation such as roadsides, wheat fields and especially in recently burned areas. The wild turkey is polygamous, meaning that one male will mate with many hens. Additionally, a hen may mate with several gobblers.

Sometime in April, the hen will start to sneak away from the flock around mid-morning and lay a single egg. She will do this each day until her clutch is complete at around 10-12 eggs, and will then incubate the eggs for about four weeks.

Nests are found in tall vegetation, such as grass or shrubs, as well as under downed tree limbs.  The poults hatch synchronously and are precocial, meaning they are well developed and can forage for themselves immediately after hatch.

Hens will lead their poults to areas that have overhead cover, are open at ground level and have abundant insects, which make up most of their diet. Dense forest with no herbaceous ground cover and thatch forming grasses, such as Bermuda grass are avoided during this time. Poults that survive the summer will join other hens and poults for the winter.

What many people may not realize is the wild turkey all but disappeared from most of its distribution due to unregulated and excessive hunting. The reintroduction and restoration of the wild turkey is one of conservation’s great success stories and took tremendous collaboration between state wildlife agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and private organizations, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Early attempts to raise the bird in captivity and then release into suitable habitat failed. Eventually, wildlife biologists developed special rocket propelled nets that were used to capture wild adult birds from the few areas that had abundant remnant populations. These birds were then released into areas that were considered suitable, and they quickly expanded

Today, the wild turkey again occupies most of its original distribution, and has even been introduced into areas that it was not known to historically occur, such as Oregon. The early accounts of Washington Irving in eastern and central Oklahoma document that wild turkeys were very plentiful and provided a reliable food source for Native Americans and for early European colonists.

Fortunately, we did not lose the species and it once again provides recreation, food and diversity to our forest and prairie landscapes.

Dwayne Elmore is Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist in the department of natural resource ecology and management.

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