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Wild Turkey Nests

Dear Bird Folks,

I was surprised to learn from one of your columns that Wild Turkeys sleep in trees. They seem too big and clumsy to be able to fly that high. What about nesting? Do they also build their nests in trees?

– Jackson, Falmouth, MA


You are so right, Jackson,

Typically, when someone says something disparaging about birds, I argue an opposite view. But you are right about Wild Turkeys. When it comes to flying and landing in trees, they are indeed clumsy. In fact, I have a story about their clumsiness and I’ll tell it to you at the end. Actually, I’ll tell you right now, just in case I run out of room. As they say, “Carpe diem,” which is Latin for “tell the turkey story now.”

Early one morning, I looked out the kitchen window and saw at least a dozen Wild Turkeys sitting in a large pitch pine in our backyard. The big birds appeared totally out of place and behaved that way, too. They reminded me of myself on a ladder – nervous and uncomfortable. Anytime a bird moved, even a little, it would have to extend its wings in an attempt to keep from falling. They all sat in the tree for a while, until, for whatever reason, the entire flock decided it would be safer on the roof of my house. It wasn’t a good idea. My roof, as you might expect, is covered with solar panels. As each bird landed, it would slide down the panels, as if it was a four-ticket ride at the Barnstable County Fair. You might think when the other turkeys saw what happened to the first few, they would avoid the situation and land someplace else, but not these goofballs. One by one, they landed on the glass panels and one by one, they slid off. It was pretty funny. Proving once again that going solar is not only good for the planet, but it’s entertaining as well.

Wild Turkeys don’t nest in trees, but it’s not due to their clumsiness (although it could be a factor). Most tree nesting birds are born blind, naked and helpless, and need to be constantly fed by their parents. But baby turkeys are precocial, meaning they are feathered and ready to go right after hatching. The trouble is, the tiny birds still lack the ability to fly. If their nest was high up in a tree, they would not be able to get down safely and would soon starve since their mother lacks the ability to feed them. A few precocial bird species, Wood Ducks, for example, are born in trees and those ducklings actually do jump down in order to find food. But I don’t think that procedure would work very well with goofy baby turkeys. If they jumped down, they’d probably land on someone’s solar panels and would go sliding off into oblivion. Turkeys nest on the ground.

Unlike most breeding birds, turkey adults never become “a couple.” There is no one-on-one courtship or pair bonding. Instead, tom turkeys walk around, strutting their stuff in hopes of impressing all the ladies in the area. If a hen sees something she likes in one of the males, the two birds will mate and that will be the end of that. There will be no pillow talk or honeymoon and he will never call her again…and she doesn’t expect him to. She is now totally on her own to build a nest, lay eggs and raise her family. With so much work to do, she has to stay focused and has no time deal with a showoff male.

Over the years I have found tiny hummingbird nests, warbler nests, gnatcatcher nests and assorted other small nests that are hidden up in trees. So, finding a nest on the ground, constructed by one of North America’s largest birds should be much easier to find. It’s not. Turkeys, particularly the females, can virtually disappear when they want to.

Throughout most of the year, the turkeys in our area parade around with an almost arrogant attitude. They don’t seem to care much about us, our activities or our cars, but that all changes during the breeding season. This is when the hen suddenly becomes secretive. Last week, while on a woodland walk, I came upon a lone female. But instead of being indifferent toward me, as she often is when walking through my neighborhood, she was now shy and slowly skulked away, like a little kid who had done something wrong and didn’t want to be spotted at the scene of the crime. Thinking this was my chance to finally find a turkey nest, I spent the next half-hour searching through the understory for eggs, but the only thing I got for my effort was poison ivy and a few ticks. If there was a nest around there, I couldn’t locate it. Somehow, hummingbird nests are much easier to find.

The books say that Mrs. Turkey likes to hide her nest near the edge of the woods, usually not far from a field or other open area. The nest is nothing more than a scratched depression in the ground, often at the base of a tree or brush pile. From this concealed location, she’ll spend the next month of her life rarely moving, except to rotate her eggs and to run out for a quick snack. After twenty-eight days of incubating, her 10-12 chicks will hatch and a few hours after that, she will lead them away, teach them to find food and keep them warm on cold nights. Hen turkeys are good moms.

Turkeys begin life in a soft nest on the ground, Jackson, but eventually they’ll be able to fly. They’ll use their wings when they need to escape predators, roost in a tree and most importantly, when they feel the urge to go sliding on solar panels. It actually looks like fun. I’m thinking about trying it myself, and if I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.