The Eastern Wild Turkey is a native of Long Island. Once nearly gone from our area, it has since been reintroduced, and today East End turkey populations are thriving.
Wild turkeys are social birds that travel in flocks by walking on the ground. Their bodies are large with black shiny feathers, wide tails, and small heads on long necks. Male turkeys are called toms or gobblers and are larger than females or hens. Males and females travel together during mating season, separately the rest of the year. Hens group together with their young, called poults.
Turkeys have a dewlap, a flap of skin under the neck. Adult males also have a beard, a modified group of feathers that hangs off their chest. On their forehead, wild turkeys have a fleshy finger-like patch of skin called a snood, much more noticeable in the male. Males display to attract females by spreading their tail feathers and strutting. When strutting, the snood becomes bright red and elongated, hanging well below the bill. In the male, both the snood and the dewlap, also called the wattle, are covered in wrinkled skin called caruncles. Females are much less brightly colored.
Turkeys are omnivores and an important part of woodland ecology. Since turkeys do not migrate in winter, they survive by eating a variety of foods: plants, insects, spiders, worms, fruits, berries, acorns, and hickory nuts. Even small snakes and salamanders can be gobbled up.
Wild turkey hens can fly when threatened by predators, but toms are too big and heavy, so they run from danger or defend themselves with sharp spurs on the backs of their feet. Both hens and toms can flutter up to low tree branches and roost in trees at night for safety. Young turkeys’ predators include the Red Fox and Great Horned Owl. Other predators, raccoons and snakes, eat wild turkey eggs.
The long-term success of this reintroduction, however, will be dependent on habitat availability. The continued preservation of our local woodlands is critical to the survival of wild turkeys, providing shelter, food, and nesting habitat.
Melanie Meade, marine biologist, naturalist, and educator is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton.