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Wild Turkey

Wild Turkeys Foraging on Sensitive Fern Fertile Spores

Congratulations to Deb Marnich, the first of many Naturally Curious readers who identified the Sensitive Fern fertile frond visitors as Wild Turkeys.  I had neglected to check and make sure I hadn’t addressed this subject recently on this blog, which is my custom with every post, and indeed, just a year ago there was a post on this very subject.  Judging from the number of correct entries, either I have a very informed readership or their memory is better than mine – quite possibly both!

Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks.

A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female.

The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the tom’s snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Dust Baths

Some species of birds “bathe” in substances other than water. Often dust or sandy soil is the material of choice, but rotten wood and weed particles are also used.  Dust baths, also called dusting or sand bathing, are part of a bird’s preening and plumage maintenance that keeps feathers in good condition. The dust that is worked into the bird’s feathers while it kicks its feet and beats its wings in the sand will absorb excess oil to help keep the feathers from becoming greasy or matted. The oil-soaked dust is then shed easily as the bird fluffs its feathers and shakes itself vigorously. Usually some feathers come out as well, and it’s often possible to determine what species of bird has taken a bath by the feathers left behind. The pictured dust bath is sprinkled with Wild Turkey feathers.  Ornithologists feel that regular dusting may also help smother or minimize lice, feather mites, and other parasites.

Hundreds of bird species have been recorded as dusters.  Those that take regular dust baths include sparrows, pheasants, turkeys, thrushes, thrashers and wrens.  (Thanks to Jody Crosby for photo op.)

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Happy Thanksgiving!

11-22-18-hen & 3 toms IMG_7362


Tom Turkeys Strutting Their Stuff

3-19-18 wild turkey IMG_7081Congratulations to Penny Jessop, who submitted the first correct Mystery Photo answer!

In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys begin gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major caruncles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow (these primary wing feathers are responsible for the parallel lines either side of the trail of tracks), elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her.

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Wild Turkeys Dine on Sensitive Fern Spores

1-22-18 wild turkey IMG_0600Wild Turkeys usually forage in flocks as they search the ground for food. Acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, ironwood and white ash seeds, hawthorn and witch hazel fruits make up a lot of their diet in fall, winter and spring. In the summer, seeds of grasses and sedges as well as invertebrates are eaten. In winter, when snow has accumulated, leaves of sedges, evergreen ferns, hemlock buds, burdock seeds and spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns tend to be more accessible and readily eaten.

The fertile fronds of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) persist all winter, sticking up out of the snow as if beckoning to hungry turkeys. Upon finding a clump of these fertile fronds, a turkey will peck repeatedly at them, causing the sori (clusters of sporangia which produce and contain spores) to burst and release thousands of spores onto the surface of the snow.

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Hen Turkeys Protecting Poults

6-12-17 wild turkey hen 197

Wild Turkey chicks, or poults, can be seen these days scurrying at their mother’s feet, trying to keep up with her as they forage in fields for grasshoppers and other insects. How the hen turkey reacts to a human (or other) threat depends on the age of her poults. If they are very young (under a week old), she huddles stock still with her brood in a frozen position.   With wings and tail spread, she provides them with shelter. If they are detected, she gives a vocal command to her young to remain “frozen,” and feigns an attack on the intruder, simultaneously making a “putting” sound to quiet her chicks. By the time they are a week old, poults tend to evade possible predators by running away. At nine days old and later, most poults fly into low vegetation when threatened. By the time her brood is three weeks old, the hen commands them to fly into trees at the sign of danger.

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Tom Turkeys Gobbling & Strutting

3-30-17 tom turkey IMG_7637In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys began gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place. Hearing a tom turkey gobble is as sure a sign of spring as the sight of one strutting.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major carbunkles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for photo op.)

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Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.

Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)

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Wild Turkey Hens On Eggs

wild turkey nest 238

This is what a typical Wild Turkey’s nest looks like – anywhere from 4 to 17 eggs in a shallow depression in the ground.  Sometimes, however, turkeys engage in a practice referred to as “egg dumping.” A hen turkey comes along and lays a few eggs in several other turkeys’ nests, in an effort to maximize the number of her offspring that will survive.  Up to 26 eggs have been found in a single Wild Turkey nest.  The hen turkey that built the nest doesn’t reject the additional eggs, but rather, welcomes them to her brood, incubates them and treats them as her own.  All of the precocial chicks are out of the nest within 24 hours of hatching and follow the hen, who feeds them for a few days until they learn to find food on their own.

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Gray Squirrels Digging Up Cached Acorns

1-27-16 gray squirrel cache 022If you have oak trees in the woods near you, chances are great that their acorns attracted wildlife this past fall, one of which was most likely a Gray Squirrel. Unlike Black Bears, Wild Turkeys and White-tailed Deer, which eat acorns immediately upon finding them, Gray Squirrels tend to cache acorns for winter consumption. They do so by burying them individually, often in fairly close proximity to where they find them. (Red Squirrels also cache food in the fall, but typically bury numerous seeds, mostly conifers and maples, in one spot.) When food becomes scarce, as it usually does this time of year, it is possible to find numerous holes dug in the snow, frequently with leaves and bits of acorn shells littering the snow around them. Tell-tale Gray Squirrel tracks leading to and from these holes identify the excavator.

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Common Polypody Spores Dispersing

10-27-15 rock polypody 057Common polypody (Polypodium virginianum), also called Rock Cap Fern, is a perennial plant found most often growing on rock surfaces usually in moist, shady woods. Being a fern, Common Polypody reproduces by spores. Structures that produce and contain spores (sporangia) are found on the undersides of the fertile frond leaflets. The sporangia form round clusters called sori. The sori of Common Polypody are orange-brown when mature and lack the protective covering (indusium) that some other fern species have. At this time of year, the mature spores are being dispersed by the wind.

The ability of Common Polypody to tolerate extreme desiccation (the leaves roll up when moisture isn’t as available, and resume their normal state when moist conditions return) means it is well adapted to the extreme moisture fluctuations of rock surfaces. Its evergreen fronds are consumed in the winter by Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and White-tailed Deer.

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Porcupines Foraging

10-1-15  porcupine in leaves IMG_2537There are a few weeks in September and October when acorns (and beechnuts) are mature enough to eat, but haven’t yet fallen to the ground. Porcupines take advantage of this nutritious supply of food that is not yet accessible to small rodents, deer and turkeys, and climb oak trees to consume acorns. Because an average porcupine weighs between 12 and 35 pounds, it is unable to climb all the way out to the end of a branch, where acorns are located, so it nips off the tips of fruit-bearing branches and then scoops out the acorn, leaving the cap still attached to the branch (diagnostic porcupine sign). When all the acorns on a branch have been eaten, the branch is discarded. You can often find many of these branch tips, or “nip twigs,” in the canopy of large oaks on a good mast year, but inevitably some fall to the ground. The end of the twig is usually cut at a 45° angle, and often you can see the lines made by the porcupine’s incisors. (Beechnuts are also harvested in this manner, as are the cones and terminal buds of eastern hemlock in winter.) Red squirrels also nip twigs in order to reach fruit, but typically do so when they harvest the cones and terminal buds of conifers. (Thanks to Ethel & Michael Weinberger for photo opportunity)

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Wild Turkeys Flying

wild turkey 186Wild Turkeys spend 99.9% of their time on the ground, and often it is assumed they cannot fly. While the Wild Turkey is one of the heaviest North American birds, second only to the Trumpeter Swan, it definitely is able to lift itself off the ground and take flight. In fact, a Wild Turkey is amazingly well adapted for explosive, short-distance flight, perfect for escaping predators.

When startled or threatened, a turkey squats slightly, takes a few steps and then explodes upward with help from its powerful legs. Turkey wings are highly cupped, which enables quick takeoff, and the breast muscles that power a turkey’s wings are built for rapid but brief exertions. After take-off, which can be at a steep or small angle, a turkey’s wings beat rapidly until the desired height is attained. The turkey usually then glides to a tree or the ground, where it lands.

Although the maximum distance turkeys can fly in a single flight is estimated to be approximately one mile, they rarely fly more than about 100 yards, which is usually enough to bring it to safety. The average speed a turkey obtains while flying any distance is anywhere between thirty and fifty-five miles per hour. Equally as (or more) impressive than its ability to fly is a turkey’s ability to swim. They have been observed tucking their wings in close, spreading their tail and kicking while in the water.

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The Effects of An Icy Crust on Wildlife

1-19-15  ruffed grouse snow cave IMG_8590This winter has brought us several storms that have ended in rain and were followed by plummeting temperatures. Just a few inches down into the powdery snow on top of the ground there is a ¼”-thick crust, and if you dig down several more inches, there is a second layer of ice, roughly 1/8”-thick. When a thick, icy layer of crust forms, it can have a dramatic effect on the lives of wildlife both above and below it.

Some animals are relatively unaffected by the presence of a crust but many predators and prey are significantly helped or hindered by it. Ruffed grouse cannot seek overnight shelter from the bitter cold and/or predators by diving into a foot of soft snow and creating a snow cave (see photo). On the other hand, small rodents have a distinct advantage — mice and voles have several layers of ice between themselves and hungry coyotes, foxes and owls. Snowshoe hares lose the advantage they usually have on deep, soft snow — “snowshoes” that keep them on top of the snow when the bobcat or fisher chasing them has to flounder through it. Turkeys don’t have the strength to dig down through one thick crust, much less two or more, in order to reach hidden acorns. If a deer is being chased, its pointed hooves will break through the crust, slowing the deer down, whereas the crust may well support a lighter predator, allowing it to outrun the deer. Red squirrels have to work much harder to reach their cached winter cones and to create tunnels.

What is a mere inconvenience to us humans literally is costing as well as saving the lives of wildlife this winter.

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Sedge Seeds

1-6-15  sedge fruit in winter 057Over 500 species of sedges in the genus Carex are found in the U.S. – over half of the world’s total. The great majority of these perennial, grass-like plants grow in the moist soil of meadows, marshes and bogs, as well as in high altitudes. Sedges are often distinguished from grasses by their stem, which is typically triangular in cross-section (“sedges have edges”). The flowers of sedges, each surrounded by a bottle-shaped bract, or modified leaf called a perigynium, are clustered on spikelets. The tips of these bracts persist after the seeds have formed, giving the spikelets a prickly appearance.

Because of their wide availability, the seeds are eaten by many kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Wild Turkeys, American Woodcock, Northern Cardinals, Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, ducks, rails, sparrows, redpolls and finches relish them. In the Northeast, Carex seeds, along with insects, are the most regular items in the diet of Ruffed Grouse chicks. Moose also occasionally feed on sedge seeds. (Photo: Longhair or Bottlebrush Sedge, Carex comosa)

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Wild Turkeys’ Struggle for Food Begins

wild turkey in snow121Wild Turkeys do not migrate. During the winter they often separate into three distinct groups — adult males (toms), young males (jakes) and females (hens) of all ages — and spend their days seeking out plant (90 percent of diet) and animal (10 percent of diet) matter. In the summer, greens and insects make up much of their diet; in the winter, Wild Turkeys rely heavily on acorns, beechnuts, crabapples and hawthorn fruit, as well as agricultural grains such as corn, buckwheat, soybeans and oats.

The winter survival of Wild Turkeys depends much more on snow conditions that impact the procuring of food than on the temperature. While research has shown that turkeys can tolerate very cold temperatures, they need adequate food to keep from losing significant body weight and eventually starving to death. In parts of northern New England, the current Nor’easter has dumped a large amount of deep, loose fluffy snow, which turkeys can’t walk on or dig through in order to reach nutritious nuts. For this reason, turkeys frequently seek out agricultural fields that are windblown and provide relatively easy access to grains.

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Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

11-27-14  HAPPY THANKSGIVING IMG_7637Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks. A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female. The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit Fruits Maturing

jack in pulpit fruit 022After the spathe (hood) dies back, Jack-in-the-pulpit fruit is more obvious, especially as the green berries turn brilliant reddish-orange at this time of year. Eventually the stem withers and the seed head falls to the ground. The tissues of Jack-in-the-pulpit, particularly the roots, contain high toxic levels of oxalic acid. The berries, if eaten, cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat due to physical cuts caused by the crystals of calcium oxalate. Although cattle, goats, pigs and sheep are susceptible to the toxin, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood thrushes appear to consume them without distress. As is obvious from this photograph, though, the berries are not in high demand.

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The “Strut”

2-12-14  tom turkey displaying IMG_7084The Mystery Photo guesses were extremely entertaining. Most creative and funniest: “A very overweight raccoon cross-country skiing with his belly dragging in the middle?” In all fairness, the fluffiness of the snow certainly didn’t help give the answer away.

When male Wild Turkeys, or toms, are displaying for one or more females during courtship, their behavior includes something referred to as the “strut.” This involves the male turkey fanning his tail, lowering his wings with the middle primary feathers dragging on the ground, raising his back feathers, throwing his head back and inflating his crop as he glides along the ground in view of one or more females. In snow, this behavior leaves a relatively straight line of turkey tracks with a line (or several) to either side of the tracks, left by the tom’s primaries. (When the tom turns a corner, several feather tips often leave numerous lines in the snow.) Wild Turkeys are already displaying in our woodlands, in preparation for mating in March.

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Shagbark Hickory Nuts Ripening

11-19-13 shagbark hickory 043Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata , a member of the Walnut family, is named after the shaggy appearance of the bark on older trees. Shagbark Hickory produces nuts which initially are covered with thick husks. As time goes on, the green husks turn brown and open, exposing the nuts, which fall to the ground if squirrels haven’t managed to eat them while they are still on the tree. It takes about ten years for a Shagbark Hickory tree to start producing nuts, but large quantities are not produced until it’s 40 years old. Nut production continues (a good crop every three to five years) for at least 100 years. Shagbark Hickory nuts are very sweet and highly nutritious. They were a staple food for the Algonquians and squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, wood ducks and wild turkey also feed on these excellent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

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Wild Turkeys Mating

3-25-13 -wild turkeys mating P1040933The most prominent courtship behavior of male wild turkeys (toms) consists of two displays: gobbling and strutting. Both begin in late February in northern New England, before the females (hens) are receptive, but by late March the males begin to reap the fruits of their labor. The gobbling of the males attracts females or competing males over considerable distances. The tom turkey begins to “strut” only after a hen appears. While strutting, he fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward as he appears to glide around a female. If she is receptive, she assumes a “sexual crouch” on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for this photograph.)


Wild Turkey Sign

3-6-13 wild turkey-eaten burdock IMG_0691If you find clumps of empty burdock fruits lying on top of the snow, there may well be wild turkeys in the area. During the winter, especially when the snow pack is deep, wild turkeys feed on vegetation poking up above the surface of the snow, such as burdock seeds. There are tell-tail signs when turkeys have been eating burdock, even if no tracks are evident, because of the way in which they consume the seeds. Turkeys somehow pluck the burdock fruits off and then turn them inside-out, exposing the seeds which they then eat. Typically several of these empty fruits will be “velcroed” together, leaving small bunches of them scattered over the snow.