The Wild Turkey is a non-territorial, polygynous bird. The turkey mating season runs from February through April, depending on the locale and weather. They are not too unlike humans when it comes to the mating ritual. If the hen has the urge to breed, she may answer a tom's call. Rather than stay put and await her suitor, she will move towards his call.
The Mating Ritual - The Strutting Begins
When she gets in range, he becomes excited and goes into the turkey mating ritual. His strutting consists of inhaling air and thus inflating himself to nearly double his ordinary size. Feathers will ruffle and his tail fans. He drops the points of his wings to the ground.
The turkey mating ritual is a site to behold. This is a tell-tale sign for the hunter. If you see turkey tracks and outrigger feather trails, you know a tom is on the strut.
She Gets ChoosyGiven the choice, the hen will choose the biggest and most vocal gobbler - the dominate tom. As the hen approaches, she will drop her butt toward him. The tom will mount her, forcing her to the ground. She will then turn her tail upwards and to the side. This exposes her cloaca. The tom bends his tail down so that his cloaca touches hers, and then releases his sperm into her. The sperm is carried and is viable for up to eight weeks. One turkey mating session allows the hen to produce multiple clutches of eggs from a single mating encounter.
It's All OverAfter breeding, the hen is left to fend for herself and to rear the young poults. Her nest is a shallow depression scratched into the ground. She prefers the open woodland for nesting, often concealing it under brush, grass, or shrubs. She tries for a location in which she is well protected from behind, as her field of vision covers about 300 degrees. Depending on the locale, egg-laying can begin anytime after February and continue on until May. About 10 to 12 eggs are laid in about a 2 week period. If all goes well, no more eggs are laid, but if this batch is lost due to predators or some other reason, the hen may lay a second batch. This batch usually only has 6 to 8 eggs, though.
The NewbornThe eggs are white with light brown spots and incubation in 28 days. All will hatch within one day and the precocial young birds, called poults, are able to walk within a few short hours. By day two, the hen and poults form an organized feeding line and leave the nest. Until about 2 weeks old, the young will roost on the ground, as they are unable to fly. As soon as they can fly, they will join the hen in a tree for the night. Hen and young remain together and may join other brood flocks through the summer and fall. The male young leave the brood hen in late fall to join other males. Female young don't leave until the following spring. At this time, the female flocks break up, forming smaller groups of females attended by 1 - 4 adult males.
The Kids Grow-up and Leave the NestThe turkey will reach maturity at year one, but turkey mating may not happen until two to three years old. This is especially true of the Merriams hens. They mostly skip the first year and start breeding in the second. Young jakes generally don't breed in the first year due to the aggresiveness of the dominate tomsand even sub-dominate toms only mate when the dominate tom is otherwise occupied.
Even though turkeys have been know to live up to about 15 years, by the time they are 5, they are considered old. A mortality rate of 50% is not uncommon.