Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin shared his thoughts on the wild turkeys in America.
For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has these facts to share about this elusive bird. Those pictured here are residents of Menokin, and have been sporting about the property quite a bit in the last few weeks — no doubt spurred on by the rising sap and surging hormones.
- Courtship begins in late March and early April. Egg laying commences around mid-April and peak of nest incubation is normally the first week of May (May 5). Hatching takes place 28 days later, normally during the first week of June.
- Acorns are favored foods. Unlike deer, wild turkeys have a poor sense of smell and taste and they normally select acorns based on their size and shape. In contrast, white-tailed deer normally select white oaks because of their lower tannin content and less bitter taste.
- Oak crops have a significant impact on fall turkey harvests. The harvest declines in years with good mast crops as flocks move less and typically stay in forested areas making them more difficult to locate and hunt. Conversely, during mast failures birds move further in search of food and typically are seen in fields and clearings making them more vulnerable to hunting and predation.
- Wild turkey beards grow throughout the life of the bird and usually gain about 4 inches annually. Juvenile males or “Jakes” normally have a beard that is about 2-4 inches in length by their first spring gobbler season. Adult males or “Toms” commonly sport beards that are 8-12 inches in length. The overall length of the beard is regulated by wear as the beard drags the ground.
- Hens can have beards and on rare occasions they have spurs. The Department estimates that about 5% of some local turkey female populations have beards. The occurrence of spurs is extremely rare however.
- Spurs have a bony core and are covered with a keratinous material similar to our fingernails. Spurs grow throughout the life of the bird and can be used to estimate age.
- The appearance of wild turkeys is the result of black, white, and brown feathers. Occasionally there are variations in feathers that result in color aberrations. “Smokey gray” birds lack any brown feather coloration and have been described as ghost-like in appearance. Red phase or eruythsite birds have red coloration in their feathers instead of brown. Occasionally we find melanistic birds that all black in color. In contrast, albinos are all white.
- Virginia’s wild turkey population is estimated to be approximately 180,000 birds. Populations are not uniform across the state however as the highest population densities can be found in the Tidewater, South Mountain, and South Piedmont regions.
- Weights of spring gobblers normally range from 17-19 pounds in Virginia.
- Peak gobbling in Virginia would normally take place in early May based on gobbling surveys taken before we started spring gobbler hunting. Peak gobbling typically would coincide with peak nest incubation. However, gobbling rates decline as the spring season progresses because of harvests and reduce gobbling due to hunting pressure.