Birds & Birding

The Fascinating Fall Behavior of Wild Turkeys

November 21, 2017

Follow Matthew
Photo © Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons

Around the Thanksgiving holiday, a lot of decorations and advertisements feature a similar image of a turkey: It’s often a big male turkey, all puffed out and in full strut. And we all know that turkey’s saying “gobble gobble.”

If you were lucky enough to see a turkey in the wild on Thanksgiving Day, there’s little chance it would be puffed up and strutting, nor would it be gobbling. Those are primarily the spring breeding displays of male wild turkeys.

In the fall, wild turkeys behave quite differently. So how do wild turkeys spend Thanksgiving Day? Here’s a look at their fascinating behavior during autumn.

Turkeys of a Feather…Flock Together

My first wild turkey sighting came on a late fall day in the mid-80s, when I was deer hunting with my dad. We were about ready to call it a day, looking down into a wooded hollow in Central Pennsylvania. Suddenly, a line of dark forms appeared, moving slowly through the woods, stopping and looking every few steps.

At the time, turkeys were still a rare sight in our part of the state. (In fact, many friends and relatives doubted our story). I recall how big, how beautiful, they looked moving through the hardwoods. But what I mostly remember is how quiet they were. Leaves had piled on the forest floor, loud and crunchy. A lone squirrel sounded like a snowplow when it jumped around. But these turkeys scarcely made a sound.

Gould’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) in Aravaipa Canyon Preserve, AZ. Photo credit: © Justin Bailie for The Nature Conservancy

I’d later learn this silence was actually unusual. A flock of turkeys in the fall can be extremely noisy while calling and scratching. On that day, the first day of Pennsylvania’s popular deer season, the woods were full of people, and the turkeys were stealthy and alert.

As a hunter and naturalist, this encounter launched a lifelong interest in wild turkeys. I’ve spent a lot of time observing them. I’ve seen plenty of gobbling and strutting in the spring. I’ve seen turkeys mating, fighting, feeding, roosting and tending chicks. Their spring behavior gets all the attention, but I always find a special thrill watching them in the autumn.

The first thing to understand about fall turkey behavior is the social structure of flocks. Basically, turkeys of a feather flock together. Hen turkeys live in flocks with their female offspring. Oftentimes, several hens and their offspring will combine flocks, so it’s quite common to see 50 or more birds together. The Cornell Lab or Ornithology reports that some winter flocks can consist of 200 turkeys. Hens that were not successful hatching chicks may form smaller flocks with similar lone hens.

Male turkeys form their own flocks. Depending on population size, these too might be segregated by age classes. Young male turkeys, commonly called jakes, band together, and older males form their own groups.

Bucktail State Park, Clinton County, PA. Photo © George C. Gress / The Nature Conservancy

All these turkey flocks will likely be located in different parts of a forest. They don’t interact much at this time of year.

They do interact with each other within a flock. At this time of year, turkeys are always with the flock and call constantly each other to ensure they’re close by. They feed and call, feed and call. These calls are all quite soft, but you can often hear them in the hardwoods if you listen closely.

Say you’re out for a hike and you stumble into a flock of turkeys. They’ll run and fly in every direction. But within minutes, they’ll begin calling. Loudly. Hens make a harsher yelp, while young chicks give a higher-pitched call, often referred to as the kee-kee.

They will call to each other until the flock is reassembled. This may suggest an idyllic picture of a fall turkey flock, but let’s not get anthropomorphic. An important aspect of flock life is establishing dominance. Both male and female turkey flocks in the fall are full of squabbles, dominance displays and even fights – all establishing who is at the top of the pecking order. This is important in determining breeding rank come spring.

Flock of male turkeys (toms) near a New Hampshire airport. Photo © USDA by D. Bargeron on Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

Occasionally, you will even hear a particularly aggressive male turkey let out a full-throated gobble. This is again establishing dominance, but it’s far less common than in the spring, when male turkeys gobble loudly and frequently.

Of Acorns and Roost Trees

Turkeys are quite habitual at this time of year, often living in a defined area and even following a similar route each day. As with all wildlife, where they’re found is determined largely by food and cover.

Turkeys are noted omnivores, as ornithologist Joe Smith has written previously on Cool Green Science. They’ll eat everything from fruits to frogs. But they do have preferred foods. In the summer, they can often be found in meadows, feasting on grasses and insects like grasshoppers.

Photo © Deacon MacMillan / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

In the fall, they will still haunt fields, particularly those with dropped corn or grain. But in much of the turkey’s range, they shift to the acorns and nuts – called mast by land managers – of hardwood forests. Flocks may move several miles to find acorn-rich environments. Acorns are calorie rich and turkeys spend a lot of time feasting.

In fact, I often hear them scratching long before I hear them calling. They dig through the leaves, with often large bare spots of ground remaining. These scratchings are a great way to locate a fall turkey flock.

Turkeys are very alert birds, with excellent eyesight. In the daytime, it would be difficult for a predator to stalk a flock of 30 turkeys. There’s always at least one scanning the forest. But when they rest at night, they’re vulnerable. A turkey is a large, protein-rich dinner for a coyote, fox or bobcat. And so the turkey roosts in trees, where it’s safe from ground-dwelling predators.

A turkey is a big bird, and it needs fairly large trees for roosts. I have noticed that gobblers, in particular, seem to roost in huge trees with a great vantage point, like on a ridge or along a river. I haven’t seen any literature to back that up, but it’s been my observation in a variety of habitats.

Turkeys can fly surprisingly fast in open terrain, but maneuvering is not necessarily a strength. I always find it entertaining to watch them fly off a roost at dawn. Some will fly over my head with an audible whoosh, sounding like a hang glider. But many will bounce into branches and trees as they descend to the forest floor, a true crash landing.

Turkey in a roost tree. Photo © CheepShot (Marengo Ridge, Marengo IL) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As soon as they land, they begin calling to each, assembling the flock for another day of acorn and nut foraging.

If you find a patch of forest with plentiful acorns and some large trees, nearly anywhere in the United States, chances are there are some turkeys nearby.

Given their fall antics – the scratching, roosting, and dominance fights – they’re spectacular birds to watch. Since they’re abundant, and increasingly found even close to towns and cities, turkey spotting is a widely available adventure. You will need to be extremely quiet to catch a glimpse.

Turkey tracks. Photo © Tim Engleman / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

If you’re lucky enough to have a slight snow fall, a flock of turkeys is also easy and fun to track. Their large feet are unmistakable, and due to the large number of birds moving together, they’re incredibly easy to follow. You will see how the individual birds move, sometimes straying a bit too far, then moving back. You’ll see lots of scratchings and perhaps where wings brushed snow during fights.

Follow along and you’ll see exactly how turkeys spend their days.

If you’re looking for a great adventure for Turkey Day, head outside for one of the greatest shows in the woods.

Wild turkeys at Serranias Del Burro in Coahuila, Mexico. Photo © Tupper Ansel Blake

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40 comments

  1. I remember seeing my first wild turkey flock. I live in the mountains of Southern California at elevation 6,800 feet. There are large numbers of wildlife here but seeing turkeys is rare. I expected to see them on hikes or on trail rides but not across the street from my home! What a delight!

  2. Here in R.I. one can see Turkeys walking along the Highway on strolling on the lawn at the bank.

  3. Great article and so true regarding a crash landing. We live in a valley and often they glide overhead in groups of 10 or more from the ground to a tree on the other side. Once in a while one will misjudge the landing resulting in a feathery downward spiral.

  4. Interesting piece. I have large numbers of turkeys at my place on the east slope of the Cascades and enjoy their visits. Flock composition here seems to be somewhat different then you have described; typically in the fall a flock will consist of 20 – 30 hens, 1 or 2 young males, and one large tom.

  5. Thank You for a joyful and informative article on wild turkeys. I always enjoy seeing the turkeys that flock to our yard and roost high in the pines. On Thanksgiving Day this year I was surprised to see two tom turkeys in our yard. They know that they have a safe haven with us.

  6. Please forgive me if this isn’t the place to do this, but I’m having trouble finding reliable information about wild turkeys that doesn’t have to do with hunting them. I started feeding the local flocks (upwards of forty some now) by mistake last year in my back yard. If the food isn’t out there when they want it, they come up to the door and look in. Anyway, my question concerns one lonely male. He was standing in my driveway this afternoon, in full strut fluff. No one else was around, the flocks having retreated up the hill. I’ve spotted this lonely guy before, but I’m not sure just why he’s lonely. Any ideas? Please?

  7. Turkeys in the wild are fascinating, just the way to say it. I live in Plymouth, Mass and often have the large groups of wild turkeys come through the neighborhood. if you see one crossing the road you wait for the other ones sure to follow – often 20 or so! my concern however is I seem to have a lone female turkey hanging around. my daughter and I have seen her about the neighborhood for a week or so, seeming to be ok but alone. Is this turkey doomed without her flock? I had her sleep in one of my big trees last night, close to the house and left water out on a stone wall close by her. hate to see a bad end…

  8. Hi Matthew,
    My name is Joannie Spence and I live in Horseshoe Valley (North outside of Barrie, Ontario, Canada). I have had for the past 2 1/5 weeks a turkey hen that has claimed my small property as her home. She has just hung around the place ever since I made an attempt to rescue a chick (I heard the call) from some serious issue or so I thought. I found nothing but a turkey in the bush so I walked away. The next day she arrived and has been here ever since. She acts like this is her home…she may wonder but always returns.
    She is currently roosting on a pile of automotive parts a friend has in the back yard. Today I find her pruning or scratching herself quite a lot, is this a usual behavior this time of year? Thanks for all your info…it’s very informative. Take care & enjoy the world of nature.

    Joannie 🙂

    1. Hi Joannie,
      Many thanks for your comment. Preening and scratching are quite normal behaviors at nearly any time of year. I have a small flock of backyard chickens and they spend a significant part of each day preening, dust bathing and tending to their feathers — it’s their form of pest control. It sounds like you will have some interesting turkey viewing in the days ahead. Don’t be surprised if she one day just disappears to join a flock or search for food in the woods. I highly recommend Joe Hutto’s book Illumination in the Flatwoods. It will give you a lot of insight into the life of a turkey, in a very entertaining book. Thanks for taking time to post your comment. Matt

  9. We live in the mountains of south central Colorado at 6700 ft. All summer we have had a small flock of seven turkeys that come through our place morning and evening, and have been thoroughly entertained. One morning we watched as the lead hen fended off a huge Red Tail Hawk while the half grown poults hid in the grass, and their interaction with the deer population is always humorous.
    About a month ago we noticed that there was some squabbling going on within the group, and then two weeks ago one of the turkeys was not in the group but was following along keeping a distance from the others. Now we have a group of six turkeys and the one lone one. They still come through twice a day but at different times. We’re wondering if the lone one might be a male but can’t really tell a difference between it and the others. What’s your take on this?

  10. What would make a wild male turkey hang out along a highway shoulder close to a tourist area by himself, side stepping the cars going by? I saw a young male turkey doing just that in Dillard, Georgia this last (October) weekend. He was a beautiful, healthy looking male turkey; and I almost had the impression he was waiting for someone. The next day he was along the same stretch but perhaps a quarter to half mile away up the road from the spot I originally saw him the day before. I wondered if he had been used to being fed by someone or if someone had dumped him there. He was only a few feet from the roadbed and I worried he would get hit. There really could not have been enough food source , either, to support a turkey appetite. The area has woods and fields but not where he was standing. The grass was very sparse with more mud than grass alongside the road. He was just standing still alongside the road, and he was not particularly afraid of cars; although when a truck raced by, he would side step a little . We were so puzzled that we pulled into the dirt parking area of the abandoned business close by. He was cautious and did not approach our car, but neither did he seem too worried about our presence. What would make a turkey act this way? The weather was chilly and the area had hard rain the day prior. Thank you for your insight.

  11. I live in NYS. Quite a few years ago, I also had a large flock that had discovered my bird feeders! Once they figured out that the 2 humans living here were responsible – they came EVERY day – greeting us at the door of the garage (where feed was) and gathering around us if we were outside. Mostly hens & young “teenage” kids. Then as you said – the males would turn up in the spring – all showing off & making noise. Enjoyed them so much. Lasted a couple years & then gone!
    I do remember when I still had my horse & rode out into the woods – could be exciting – we wouldnt see the turkeys until they exploded into the air – really exciting!! But then I’ve been in the woods & just happened to look up to see 6-8 turkeys flying silently from one tree to another – not a sound! I’m sure they are still here but dont see them anymore. They are fascinating – as is all wildlife.

  12. All very interesting. I live in Montana. No acorns or nuts for which to forage. What might the turkeys be eating below cottonwood and aspen trees, and conifers? Mostly there are Doug firs and spruce where I live.

  13. Hi Matthew,

    I loved your turkey article. We live in the north woods of Minnesota and I will never forget my first sight of a wild turkey. She was huge and strutted through the neighbor’s yard, then flew up on the yard swing, and swung back and forth for a while. It was so incredibly funny! We called her “turkey girl,” and she hung around all fall. She disappeared for awhile, and then showed up again in the winter. She always was a loner, but eventually two groups of turkeys emerged, male and female….about 10 to 20 in a group. I hope she is a part of that group, though in the winter I still see some lone tracks. Turkeys are gorgeous, especially when the sun hits those feathers! It is so wonderful to have turkeys here. I totally enjoy them!

  14. Great article. Thank you for your observations. There are wild turkeys around us. I now may try to create a habitat for them.

  15. I live on 8 acres in Stafford, VA, with about 3.5 acres wooded. Included are three lovely oak trees, which produce abundant acorns. I keep reading how turkeys love acorns, but in all the years I have lived here (since summer 2013) I have never seen a turkey eating the acorns. In fact, just last week I saw a single turkey feeding along the property, but no where near where the acorns are located. I can’t figure out why I never see more than one turkey or why they don’t eat the acorns. Any ideas?

  16. Hi, Matt:

    We have spoken before, and I am very grateful for your guidance and information. Thank you, my friend.

    Recently, my flock of four – which may or may not be a part of the original thirteen, have apparently driven one of the critters away.

    Yasmin – I gave her a beautiful name because my heart absolutely breaks watching her all by herself in my backyard. It doesn’t seem natural.

    Why would this happen, and how can I help Yasmin to survive on her own?

    Thanks, Matt; it’s always to hear your advice.

  17. I’ve hunted and worked as with wild turkeys all my life, and this piece is a good life history summary.

  18. Enjoyable article. In my neighborhood, there is or are several flocks of Turkeys which has grown considerably over the last 5 years. The birds are fun to watch and are comical at times. There is also a small herd of deer which mingles with the turkeys as they forage for food before the snow falls. I also enjoy watching the turkeys shake berries, from our neighbor’s trees, in order to feed the flock.

  19. There is a lone turkey hanging out in a Kroger parking lot. He’s been there about a month. I fear he’s going to get hit. Is this a normal behavior. Should I try to catch him a relocate him on my farm

    1. Hi Marjorie,
      Thanks for your question. Turkeys are quite adaptable with more of them moving into suburbs. While one hanging out in a parking lot is unusual, I suspect the turkey will fend for itself if there is food and cover nearby. It may have found that the parking lot offers what it needs while providing protection from predators. In general, if wildlife isn’t injured, it is better to let it survive on its own.

      Matt Miller

  20. Three weeks ago…Plymouth Mass. an injured (?broken leg) tom settled in my back yard ..I live near a
    nature preserve….many pine trees…..Breaks my heart..has the flock abandoned him ? How will he survive winter ?? Yes I am over top animal lover…so…is he lonely ?? Feed him every day to help heal per wilderness authority..he is now taking water..cannot seem to lie down or “perch”..can fly for about 20 foot elevation ..when frightened…does let me throw him bread and peanuts from about 5 feet away..still getting around on one leg..he is getting stronger but winter is here..will he survive without the flock and broken leg??? How will he find a winter habitat??? Thank You He is eating well but do broken legs ever get stronger?? I realize it will not heal as normal but worried about future…..does not appear to be in pain..animal control here had me watch for that..oh…no flock for weeks also..

    1. Thanks for your comment and question. Turkeys are pretty resilient creatures. An injured leg does make this turkey vulnerable to predators and makes it more difficult for it to get around. It is not unusual for a flock of birds to turn on an injured member (this happens with my backyard chickens). Surviving is a tough business, even for thriving turkeys.

  21. I live in southern Oregon. In the fall we have about 2 dz that graze in my yard every day. Come winter they disappeared not one can be found for miles. Where do they go? There’s plenty of food and cover. People are always asking me where’s your turkeys . I have no clue.
    Any idea what happens to theses mega groups of land fowl? Thanks Bob

    1. Hi Bob,
      Thanks for your question. Turkeys can move to completely different areas, especially seasonally. It seems that, in the western US, turkeys move over greater distances. I have noticed this in Idaho, where I live. They move around mountains quite a bit, and “disappear” for periods of time. In the eastern US, they do not seem to be so wide ranging.

      Matt

  22. Have you ever seen a flock of turkeys rush to the aid of a turkey wounded by a hit by a vehicle? Saw it today.

  23. I really enjoyed your view and knowledge on the Turkeys. I have had the opportunity in the last year to enjoy them myself and offer a partial peaceful and safe haven to hang out and eat. They are very beautiful and the male in his changing of color and appearance in moments is fascinating and shows us the wonders of the world and gods creatures.

  24. we have a tom turkey who comes to our bird feeder for food in the mornings. (I throw food on the ground for him.) He’s very big and clearly a mature male. My question is this: why would he hang around our house all day? He gobbles and preens and then settles down in the grass for the entire day. All alone. We live in central Massachusetts near Worcester; we have an open field and wooded areas around that.

  25. Our turkeys (in Prospect, Maine) breed more than once a year. They breed in the late fall/early winter, often scratching those wing feathers against crusted snow on the ground and making a bit of a racket. And they seem to remain in their courting action for a long time ~ especially in the Spring. Our turkeys (who feed on bird seed, in our back yard) have been puffed and strutting now since March. That’s March, April, May and June!
    I am left wondering if their habits are altered because of the food so readily available to them, which my husband throws out on the ground, daily.

  26. Really enjoyed your observations and comments. I own 100 acres in Indiana near the Wabash river and observe around 20 year round. Love watching them on trail cams.

  27. Got plenty of these birds in Cherry Hill, NJ. Off Springdale Road. Weird birds, but so far not dangerous.

  28. This is a really great article! Presently we have 3 hens(?) in our neighborhood. They come into our yard multiple times during the day to eat birdseed off the ground from various birdfeeders. Today two of them were on my neighbor’s shed roof and acted as though they were mating. The largest one of the three kept strutting around the smallest one, fanning her tail, and flapping her wings. The smallest one was also circling but would lie down and make herself very flat. This continued for about 10 minutes. They finally flew off the roof and came into our yard to the birdfeeders. I know they should be in groups of either males or females this time of year, so why would they behave like that? We are located in the Lehigh Valley area of PA in a housing development and have had fall turkeys off and on for the last few years. They are really entertaining!

  29. I have a flock of about 30 in my yard almost every day. I enjoy watching them. They didn’t look like they could fly. I was surprised when while watching one day one started running, and took to the wing, then the rest did likewise. They flew up into some trees, and after about two hours of jockeying for position they settled down for the night. I live in the mountains, at four thousand feet

  30. Dear Mr. Matthew,
    I came across this blog post while researching unusual dominance behavior in wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). I’ve livec in the Western NC mountains for over 20 years and the wild turkeys are pretty much a part of daily life here. On 11/9/19 I observed a bizarre behavior that I can only guess must be a dominance fight between two Jakes, think.
    One of the guys had thrust his head into the “maw” of the other guy – they looked for all the world like turkeys conjoined at their beaks, and I was actually concerned they had somehow gotten stuck. They did a push-me-pull-you act for quite some time… many minutes… they did separate, but started all over again.
    Have you ever seen anything like this? I was quite astounded and would love to know if this has ever been seen before. I am sure most folks will not believe me, but I did manage to get a decent video to confirm it. I am not interested whatsoever in anything other than bona fide science, and reaching serious people about this event. I have absolutely no motivation other than a love for nature and all its manifestations.
    I hope you will read this and be as surprised as I was, and perhaps be willing to discuss or put me in touch with others who might have seen this before or for that matter, have never seen before.
    Thank you and regards, Fiona Dudley, Weaverville NC

  31. I went outside in my suburban neighborhood in Sacramento, CA because of the raucous noise – turned out to be a flock of wild turkeys having a huge squabble and/or fight. I couldn’t track which bird was after which bird, or if the birds changed places. After about 3 minutes the flock was quiet, with one bird walking out front. It kept on walking with a mild squawk. It would continue walking, and quietly squawk, and seemed to have been thrown out of the flock. I lost sight of it when it turned the corner. The flock resumed its grazing on a nearby yard, and eventually moved away in the other direction.
    Could you explain to me what was going on? This happened earlier this week, November 10 or so.
    Thanks! Plz e-mail a response to me. Again, thank you!

  32. I live on Long island, New York since childhood, the Turkey population has boomed in the last few years. It is now common to see large flocks of turkeys on the roadside on the North shore of Suffolk county where I’m presently living. I’ve never seen any of these segregated flocks you’ve spoken of, every flock is a few toms and up to a couple dozen hens. I observe the Toms shepherding and directing the hens in the flock, they run a very tight ship! Roadkill is common here including deer, groundhogs, possum, squirrel, but I have never seen a turkey roadkill they seem highly intelligent and able to avoid the cars. When humans approach the toms will chase the hens away from the people and then turn to face the threat. They certainly seem to be better parents and more responsible then the deer around here which let their fawns wander off wherever without a clue. Anyways I’ve made several videos of them and I find them a fascinating subject and I appreciate your article.Having not really noticed them until a few years ago I find them a highly intelligent and sophisticated animal. Thanks again and have a great day.

  33. I’ve noticed several male turkeys traveling solo, and seemingly not welcome in the flock. This is coming from Illinois in November. Why is this?