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(For the week of April 6, 2009)
The Wild Turkey
by James L. Cummins

In 1928, Aldo Leopold, regarded as the father of game management in the United States, stated that, “Wild turkey (in Mississippi) were steadily decreasing. They have been cleared out of the open ranges, and there is barely a seed stock left in the larger swamps.” Very little thought was given to turkey management until after World War I. Because of concern by landowners and the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission in the 1950s, an intensive live trapping and transplanting program began in Mississippi. At first, pen-reared birds were stocked, but resulted in failure. Since then over 2,000 wild, trapped turkeys have been stocked in all counties of Mississippi. This stocking of wild birds has been a tremendous success.

In order to understand the wild turkey, one must first understand the biology of the turkey. In late January and early February, wild turkey flocks begin to break up and gobblers start searching for hens. Gobblers are very protective of their hens and fights between males occasionally occur. Once the hens are mated, they begin laying eggs in the middle of April. One mating can result in the fertilization of an entire clutch of eggs. Approximately one egg is laid each day until a clutch size of 8 to 15 eggs is attained. The eggs are buff-brown in color and have small brown spots covering them. The incubation time is 28 days. However, research has shown that over 50 percent of all nests are either abandoned or destroyed before incubation is complete.

The wild turkey gobbler has a chestnut brown-chipped set of tail feathers. Most of the birds have large bodies and measure up to 50 inches in length with a wing span of approximately 55 inches. Gobblers are noted for their bristle-like beards that extend from the breast and continue to grow throughout the turkey’s life. Beards can reach up to 12 inches in length. Another characteristic of the gobbler is spurs on the inside of the legs near the feet. Spurs can reach a length of up to three-quarters of an inch. Gobblers are also known for their gobbling during spring mating.

Habitat for wild turkeys varies tremendously, but they do best in hardwoods with fairly open understories, small clearings, a water supply and little or no disturbances. One requirement of these bottomland hardwood tracts is that they must consist of at least 1,500 acres.

Once restocking efforts have taken place, turkey flocks must be given adequate protection from illegal and unethical hunting practices. Young poults are very vulnerable to poaching in the summer and fall months. Once the turkey population has been established, protection in the nesting season from free ranging dogs is a must. If the necessary precautions are not taken, increases in turkey numbers will be prevented.

Another important ingredient in the recipe for a good turkey population is food. Clover, winter wheat and bahiagrass are a few species of plants that can be grown for food. If carefully planned, borders around food plot openings can be used for nesting.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.