By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
Hunters chase turkeys in the spring and see them while deer hunting in the fall, but the most critical time of year for the birds typically finds the fewest people afield, a good thing for turkeys and hunters alike.
Hens across the southeast should be nesting now through early June. This is the time when the birds are most vulnerable, and the flocks’ future along with them. Cold, wet springs like the one we’re enduring now are especially difficult for nesting success.
Beyond the obvious threat of nests flooding, biologists believe predators may be better able to find hens and nests through scent because of the way damp conditions support and hold scent particles in the air.
The hens will lay their eggs on the ground, typically selecting or creating a shallow bowl-like depression in a hidden spot in a wooded area. They’ll generally lay 10 to 12 eggs over a two-week period, and the eggs will be incubated for about 28 days. Fertilized eggs can be laid for up to four weeks after mating, meaning if one nest is destroyed by weather or predators, hens may be able to lay a second clutch of fertile eggs.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, hens don’t begin incubating their nests until the entire clutch of eggs is laid so that the hatching is synchronized. Adult turkeys depend on their sight, hearing and camouflage for defense and fly well, but newly-hatched poults are without most of that protection.
Up and moving
Although they can walk and feed within 24 hours of hatching, they’re initially without the feathers that allow them to fly. Generally within 10 days to 2 weeks, they’ll have sufficient wing feathers to fly short distances and begin roosting at night in the lower branches of trees.
Bugs, bugs, bugs
Adult turkeys eat a wide variety of bugs, fruits, grains and other seeds, but young turkeys almost exclusively eat insects and larvae for the first several weeks. Insects are useful for their high protein content, which supports the young birds’ rapid rate of growth. After seven months, young gobblers should weigh just over 12 pounds and young hens should weigh around eight pounds. From that point on, their growth rate slows and more closely matches the seasonal availability of food.
Although turkeys have a very poor sense of smell and research indicates touching eggs found in a nest likely will not cause the hen to abandon them, there’s no reason to do so. Because of the myriad of unavoidable natural difficulties nesting hens face, people who find nests should not only leave them alone, but go to all reasonable lengths to see they remain undisturbed.