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Wintering - Pushing Boundaries (Wild Turkey)

The return and subsequent spread of wild turkeys across North America has been a tremendous wildlife success story. At the time of the arrival of Europeans to the continent, wild turkeys could be found across the continental United States and into southern Ontario, however not really beyond that. In subsequent years the species was hunted nearly into extinction and were protected by law in many areas. The thought of a hunting season for them was a non-starter for most of the 20th century in the Northeastern states and provinces. They just were not present, or not in enough numbers to be able to fathom a hunt. However thanks to the work of conservation groups such as the NWTF in conjunction with local governments and natural resource departments, the wild turkeys have returned and in huge numbers! They now even spread beyond what is thought to be their “traditional” habitat and are located in many Canadian provinces. In our area of New Brunswick, there is a growing movement of men and women who love the outdoors and would love to see more of a population established in our province and hunting opportunities.

For those who have actually had the privilege to hunt a wild turkey, you will attest with us that the experience is unlike any other. The wild turkey has tremendous hearing and sight, and a habit of making hunters feel silly. You may work and hunt for several hours and do everything right, only to make one slight miscalculation at the last instant and have it all melt away. Author Tom Kelly shared that "The wild turkey possesses a remarkable ability to turn arrogance into hopelessness." We would agree.

The founders of this site are proud and active members of the Canadian Wild Turkey Federation (CWTF). Depending upon estimates, there may already be up to 3,000 “eastern” wild turkeys in the province of New Brunswick. Many of these are thought to be “farmed” turkeys released by well-meaning individuals hoping to see a population established. We, along with the NWTF and CWTF would discourage this practice as time after time in every location where this has been tried it has failed. Maine, Pennsylvania, and Vermont all experienced failures at these “farmed” wild turkeys. Jim Wescott, one of the most instrumental figures in the return of the wild turkey to the state of Maine says that this is primarily because of two reasons: that the “farmed” wild turkeys do not have the same sized clutch and they do not expand their range like true wild birds.

Here at Wilderness Obsession, we would love to be able to hunt true wild turkeys in New Brunswick. They taste fantastic and they can actually be good for removing some pests as they eat insects, snails, and slugs. We are relatively new to turkey hunting but have all paid to go on hunts in Maine because of the lack of opportunities to do the same here. The wild turkey is a very wary bird, and very difficult to hunt. Having a larger population of true wild turkeys here in New Brunswick would keep those dollars at home, and even bring in more hunters from other areas. Should the province move forward with a spring hunt in the near future, we would become the only jurisdiction in the northeast where hunters could experience both a spring bear and a spring turkey hunt! For those of us who care about seeing this come to fruition, how wild turkeys are able to manage our severe winters is a big concern and question.

A wild turkey is very resilient in winter and is able to withstand more than one might expect. They do not migrate south during the cold months but remain in the area. As wild turkeys were being restored, it was once thought that turkey range expansion would be limited by the cold winters in the northeast. However, as the exploding turkey population in Maine will bear witness, turkeys have been able to thrive in areas that were previously thought of as too cold. Biologists there claim that landscape changes combined with the ability to adapt have enabled them to survive in areas previously thought to be too harsh. Biologists and turkey enthusiasts have discovered that harsh cold is not the deterrent to turkeys' survival that they initially believed.

Turkey Tracks in the Snow

The more we find out about wild turkeys, the more they tend to surpass our expectations. Wild turkeys have been able to expand their range into areas previously thought impossible. Dean Trumbley, co-host of the popular show “Trigger Effect” on WildTV and proud member of the CWTF speaks of their ability to adapt: “Turkeys are amazing natural adapters, individuals with certain traits will have a higher level of reproductive rate and survivability.   These genetic traits enable certain individuals to have a higher contribution thereby supplying greater to the next generation.  A good example of this is Eastern turkey body size from south to north.  The larger body size has a reduced surface area per unit of volume.  This results in the larger birds being better at heat conservation and the smaller variation being able to facilitate heat loss.  This type of adaptation can also account for the variation in plumage colour versus environment.  It does take generations, however they are constantly adapting to better suit their habitat.” Dean Trumbley, Registered Professional Biologist (British Columbia)

For those who may not have seen one, a wild turkey is a large and heavy bird. The “eastern” subspecies of wild turkey is the largest one and may grow to upwards of 25 pounds with a length of up to four feet long including tail. The birds will seek out thermal cover from protective conifer (softwood) trees where they have protection from the wind, snow, and cold. These protective areas are the same as those where deer would choose to spend their winters. Cold weather and deep snow may cause the birds to move to south-facing slopes, the down-wind side of ridges, and low-lying areas where they can get out of the wind. They may move to areas with good canopy closure for lower snow depths to make travel easier. A healthy wild turkey can actually go for up to a week without food, and are able to remain up on the limb of a tree for the same period if there are prolonged periods of deep, powdery snow. A healthy, adult wild turkey is able to survive periods of up to four weeks with minimal food. Young birds are always the hardest hit in terms of winter mortality during a severe winter as they don't yet have the fat reserves that allow the adults to make it through.

The wild turkey has a difficult time navigating through deep layers of snow if there is not a layer for them to walk on. Powdery snow of more than 12 inches makes it difficult for them to travel on the ground in search of food. Crusted snow allows them to navigate easier but can make it difficult for them to locate food, especially if it is deep. Although they are surprisingly fast and good at flying (up to 35mph), they will not be confused for an eagle anytime and would rather be on the ground than in the air. They generally take to the air as means of escape and when flying into and out of a roosting tree where they spend their nights for protection from the elements and from predators.

Winter for the wild turkeys is all about surviving. They will spend their days searching out food and water and their nights in those protective roosting trees. Wild turkeys will band together into flocks in the winter, something that provides them with protection from predators. Groups of 30 or more turkeys may be found in a good winter range where there is food available.

Wild turkeys are very adaptable in terms of their food sources and are able to subsist on a variety of foods. They feed in several methods depending upon the food source. They will feed by picking, scratching, clipping, stripping, or ingesting their food whole, and often a combination of these methods is used. As much as 95% of the food consumed by an adult turkey may come from plant matter. The list of foods that they will eat is long and varied. They will eat insects, spiders, snails, slugs, salamanders, small lizards, small frogs, millipedes, grasshoppers, very small snakes, worms, grasses, vines, flowers, acorns, buds, seeds, fruits, clover, dogwood, blueberries, cherries, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and other vegetation. You can find a more exhaustive list of foods by region at the following page from Bowhunting.net, which has a section on Turkey Diet by Region. Food is ingested through the esophagus and then stored in an expandable organ called the “crop.” The next destination for the food is the gizzard, where it will be crushed and ground into a digestible pulp. Only the smallest, hardest seeds will make it through the gizzard intact. Wild turkeys have some of the longest intestines of all birds, allowing them to extract the most nutritional value they can from even extremely course vegetation.

During the fall they will feast on hard mast foods to put on a layer of fat which will help to bring them through lean times in the winter where food is hard to come by. If they are stuck in those roosting trees for days at a time from harsh snowstorms, they will live on that fat. They have also learned that farmland can provide valuable food sources and it is not unusual to see them foraging for waste grains or scratching areas where manure has been spread to look for food. Don't be surprised if you see turkeys near human activity and farms. They may be seen feeding under bird feeders or on silage piles. Sometimes people will leave sections of corn standing for the benefit of wildlife. According to natural resources departments, a single section of corn left standing through the winter (25' x 100') can feed a flock of 60 turkeys.

Wintering Hen

The Maine chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) has released an excellent study on the effect of winter on wild turkeys in the northeast, which may be found here. There they mention the effect that proper habitat management can have on the survival rates of wild turkeys in our harsh climate. It is important to note that many of these practices will also benefit deer, grouse, woodcock, and other species in addition to wild turkeys. Creating food plots and actively managing forest and shrub habitats are important considerations. It mentions that birds using corn food plots showed no weight loss and mortality was less than 10% of the population. However during periods of persistent deep snow, birds relying on natural food sources showed substantial weight loss and mortality exceeded 60%.

Often the second half of winter is the toughest time for wild turkeys. By this time their fat reserves are just about gone. By then, many of their food sources may be depleted or buried by snow. If the snow is deep or crusted, they may have difficulty. They will find any remaining fruit on apple trees, eat whatever buds they may be able to find, and have even been reported to break apart burdocks to get the seeds from them. If the winter cold and snow stays around long, winter losses may be severe. This is not unlike other species we have already examined such as whitetail deer and grouse.

In our northern climate of New Brunswick, it appears likely that wild turkeys will be able to survive once a consistent population becomes established. Ideal forest conditions are now believed to consist of a mix of forest and agricultural land, and New Brunswick still has a good mix of active farmland. Turkey population is likely to fluctuate from year to year based upon annual nest success or poult survival, and also upon winter severity. Long-term population trends however will be dictated by habitat changes.

There have been many mentions of the “Canadian Wild Turkey Federation” on this site and there are bound to be many more as we are proud, active members of this young but growing group. The organization is built upon the foundations of habitat restoration. The key to building and holding a population of wild turkeys is in habitat.

If you would like to become a part of this growing movement, check out their website at www.cwtf.com or their Facebook pages. The Canadian Wild Turkey Federation sells individual annual memberships for $35.

2015-03-26 12:56:05

 

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