Bird Watcher's General Store

Turkey Family - 04/18/03


Dear Bird Folks:

We have a family of turkeys coming to our yard. Recently two males have been fanning out their tails, but the females seem to ignore them and never fan their tails. Is the male turkey the only one that fans out its tail feathers?

-Eileen, Hopkinton, MA

Yo Eileen, Hopkinton eh?

My sister lives in Hopkinton. Do you know her? She is kind of like me, only she looks quite a bit older. Evidently, it's a hard life living there in Hopkinton. That is pretty neat how you have a flock of turkeys in your yard. I don't think they can actually be called a "family" since these birds are trying to mate with each other and, except for certain parts of this country, mating with family members is not encouraged.

For most of the year turkeys can be found in one of four different kinds of flocks. Mature males (toms) hang out together and have little to do with the females or the kids. Mature females (hens) who either didn't successfully mate or who have lost their brood, also form a flock. These spinsters wander the countryside feeding and talking about how rotten men are. The third flock is a true family, consisting of the mother hen and all of her offspring. As the mother hen's young males (jakes) get older, they leave her flock and join up with a fourth flock made up of other jakes. Jakes are the young hotties of the turkey world. They hang out all winter, just counting down the days until the breeding season begins.

When spring arrives, the length of day, combined with improving weather, causes the turkeys' hormones to kick into breeding mode. The toms gobble in an effort to find a hen and the hens do the same. Once the two flocks find each other, the toms start showing off. Like you said, the males fan out their tails, fluff out their feathers and strut around like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.

The turkey world is more sophisticated than you would think. The meeting of the two groups doesn't turn into some kind of wild orgy. The dominant male is the first one to mate. The other toms only mate when the dominant male is "occupied". The hens on the other hand are not bullied into this mating ritual and only breed at a time of their choosing or when they are in the mood, just like most females.

After mating, each hen leaves the group to find a secret location to lay her eggs. One egg is laid each day until the entire clutch of ten to twelve eggs is completed. Only after all of the eggs are laid will the female begin to incubate her eggs. It's important for all the eggs to hatch within a day or so of each other. Newly hatched turkeys are 'precocial', which means they hatch out covered in feathers, with their eyes open and ready to rock and roll. If all the chicks didn't hatch out at once, the mother would have trouble controlling and protecting the moving chicks while she continued to brood the unhatched eggs.

A mother turkey protects her young family from predators and weather, but her chicks feed themselves. Insects are the first food they choose. Soft, protein-rich insects help the young birds grow rapidly. After a few months of chowing bugs, the growing turkeys move into their teenage phase and start eating seeds, fruit, acorns and of course french fries and chips. Eventually her young toms will be old enough to move out and join the other punk toms of the hood.

It's good to know you have turkeys Eileen, I'm sure they are one of the few highlights of living in Hopkinton. If you happen to see my sister, wish her a happy birthday for me. It will save me from having to send her a card.

Artwork by Catherine Clark




Bird Watcher's General Store * 36 Rt. 6A, Orleans, MA 02653
toll-free: 1-800-562-1512