The Secret Life Of Winter Turkeys
by Cole Daniels
We pursue them with passion in the spring. Some chase them in the fall. But many hunters just observe them while waiting for whitetails in autumn. During winter, turkeys are largely forgotten. Most outdoorsmen are ice fishing or just trying to stay warm until the spring season begins. Even if no one is there to hear it, a tree falling in the woods still makes noise. The life of a turkey goes on as well.
In the fall, turkeys are often separated by gender. Flocks are made up of either almost all hens or almost all gobblers and jakes. You'll see few males mixed into a hen flock and occasionally see a hen or two in a gobbler flock. But the gender separation is established. As winter sets in the flocks begin to mingle and gobblers start to fight for dominance.
Unlike many big game species, these skirmishes generally don't end in major injuries. In fact, many of them end before contact is made. There is a lot of posturing and threatening before any feathers are ruffled. Turkeys will beat each other with their wings, intertwine their necks, and poke each other with those prized spurs. You'll often see marks and scratches on gobblers when picking feathers off harvested birds. Those are battle scars from their winter and early spring fights.
Again, these are not duels to the death. Turkeys are figuring out a pecking order for breeding. The dominant males will have first shot at strutting areas and opportunities to breed in the open. But just like in college, the girls make the ultimate decision. The fights are merely for bragging rights and bravado. Subordinate males still breed hens. They just have to be sneaky about it.
Sparring takes up a good portion of the winter schedule of a male turkey. But ultimately, survival is the number one goal. Turkeys seek out food sources and cover. In areas with heavy snow and extreme temperatures, birds become patterned. They will roost in same trees, use the same feeding areas, and seek out the same areas for daytime shelter. Often, they look for cuts in wooded ridgelines or evergreens for daytime shelter. They are seeking out a reprieve from winds and an easy meal.
Speaking of food, turkeys survive on waste grains & mast for much of the winter. Insects are one of their favorite foods, but they are long gone once cold temperatures set in. Heavy snow makes reaching their food more difficult. That's another reason they can be found around evergreens. Snow cover is usually lighter around spruce, aspen, and pine trees. If corn is still standing in fields, deer often eat like total slobs. They spill corn all over the ground, giving turkeys an easy meal.
In my neck of the woods, there is significant cattle grazing. Beef cattle have a habit of leaving dark colored pastries in their wake. These pies are full of nutrients and are easy pickings for hungry winter turkeys. Farmers also do a lot of manure spreading in the winter. Turkeys are more than happy to partake in that bounty as well. It may sound disgusting to those with a weak stomach, but manure is a big part of survival for many bird species.
As winter winds down, flocks become intermingled and breeding begins. The flocks break up into smaller, unorganized groups and turkeys become more nomadic. Hens are building nests and gobblers are looking for breeding opportunities. At this point, camo-clad hunters take to the woods and invite those gobblers to the party.