The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Outdoors

May 6, 2012

Turkey nesting is on schedule

A recent discovery put me in a turkey state of mind. While on my knees photographing wildflowers, I noticed a bone a few feet away and found a turkey skeleton concealed by the thickly growing grass. The skull was broken into pieces, though I could still detect the huge eye sockets.

Sometime last summer or fall, this turkey fell to a predator. Top suspects are coyote, bobcat and great horned owl. The meal had been consumed on site, and only the bones remained.

Later that morning, my peripheral vision caught movement. About 20 yards beyond the edge of the woods in an old field, I noticed a hen turkey skulk away from a multiflora rose thicket.

I approached carefully and at the base of the thicket found a turkey nest. It contained three eggs. That meant a complete clutch of 10 to 12 eggs was still a week away.

If this hen was typical, the nest was four days old. Hen turkeys lay the first egg around noon, then she skips a day. On day three she lays the second egg. And on day four she lays her third egg. Successive eggs are laid daily, but each day she lays the egg an hour or two later because its takes hens more than 24 hours to manufacture an egg. When this sequence results in an egg being laid late in the day, the hen skips a day before she resumes laying eggs. The next egg is laid early the next morning.   

Turkey eggs are large, about 1 1/2-by-2 1/2 inches. They are off white and marked by fine reddish brown or pink spots/dots. Incubation by the female alone takes about 28 days. Hatching peaks around June 1. After the mild winter and early spring, it will be interesting to see if broods appear earlier this year.

Being highy precocoial, young turkeys leave the nest with the hen just hours after hatching. Sometimes several hens combine their broods to form large flocks. These are often seen as they run across country roads or forage in open fields. Based on mail I get each spring, both hunters and birders often wonder how old poults of various sizes are.

Here’s a guide to aging young turkeys by size. It’s not exact because everything from weather and food availability to genetics affects growth rates, but it will put you in the ball park.

A newly hatched poult stands four to five inches tall, about twice as large as a newly hatched domestic chicken, and is completely covered in natal down. At seven days they have grown an inch or two, and juvenile feathers begin to replace natal down. Sometime during this second week, poults develop the ability to fly to a roost. This is a critical skill, because every night they spend on the ground puts them a great risk to predators such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes and great horned owls.

At three weeks of age, the young turkeys have doubled in size and now stand eight to nine inches tall. By now, poults can fly short distances.

When a month old, young turkeys are about nine to ten inches tall, and a week later they reach 10 to 11 inches. At this point, their natal down has been completely replaced by juvenile feathers.

By the end of week six, poults stand about a foot tall. At two months of age, young turkeys stand 12 to 14 inches tall, and mature tail and wing feathers are growing rapidly. At 13 weeks, poults stand 19 to 20 inches tall, about 2/3 the size of adult hens. Young males begin to appear darker than females due to sexual differences in molt.

At 15 weeks, poults stand 18 to 23 inches tall and males are clearly taller than young hens. After 16 weeks young males are taller, but distinctly trimmer, than adult hens.

The wild turkey nesting schedule explains why many states have a spring gobbler hunting season. It may seem counterintuitive to hunt during the nesting season, but timing is the key. Hunting hours usually close at noon so hens can safely leave the nest after noon for their normal foraging time.

— Send questions and comments to

Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or by e-mail via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com

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