Winter can be harsh for wild turkeys. Food is scarce, cold weather robs birds of vital energy and predators are constantly looking for an easy meal. It’s even tougher on the northern fringes of their range. A study conducted in Quebec found gobbler deaths were significant when at least a foot of snow remained on the ground for at least 10 days.
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks biologist Travis Runia says death rates can be high in the harshest winters in South Dakota, too. It’s not so much the cold that kills them as it is a blanket of snow that covers their food.
“They can withstand some pretty cold temperatures, but if they can’t get to food, they can’t eat,” Runia says. “The combination of severe cold and the lack of food can take a pretty heavy toll on turkeys.”
That’s why nothing matters more to a gobbler in the winter than finding food. They can survive several weeks without eating, but the less they eat, the faster they use up their fat reserves. If stored fat runs out, they then begin to lose muscle. Eventually, they’ll become too weak to fly up to roost and likely fall to a coyote, bobcat or some other larger predator.
They can starve to death, but they’ll eat foods with poor nutritional quality first, says NWTF regional biologist Rick Horton. His territory covers Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, all of which experience severe winter weather at times. Winter food is limited in the northernmost regions, especially in areas where there are few farms.
“They will eat buds off trees and shrubs if that’s all that is available,” Horton says. “Waste grain and even partially-digested grain in cow patties can carry them through the winter in farm country.”
That’s why birds will gather around farms and feedlots. When survival is on the line, turkeys will often let their guard down and walk right up to barns and even homes as they search for food, even if it means a bird feeder on a back deck. Once they find it, they return daily.
“We see quite a few more nuisance calls in the winter than any other season,” Horton says. “They’ll eat right out of a feed trough, and they can even keep cows from eating. They’ll rip into silage bags, too.”
Since food sources are limited in the harshest winter months, gobblers tend to adopt a daily routine that repeats itself up until the first signs of spring show in March or April. They use up as little energy as possible, flying or running only if danger is imminent.
In fact, flying is usually limited to flying down from the roost in the morning and back up in the evening. Birds in farm country usually roost in the same areas, fly down in the same direction and march toward food. Various studies have shown gobblers, in particular, shrink their home ranges down to as little as 50 acres during the winter, meaning they spend the entire months of January and February in one small area. That changes in the spring, when home ranges can expand to as much as 3 or 4 square miles.
“They will often roost closer to food sources in the winter, but they don’t necessarily change the types of trees they roost in,” Horton says. “They might choose south or southwest-facing slopes because it gets more sun, but not always.”
If they have adequate food, they’ll spend much of the day doing the equivalent of laying on the couch and watching TV. That is, they do as little as possible to save as much energy as they can. Mostly, that involves hanging out near food. Even if food is scarce, gobblers don’t do much if they don’t have to. There is a trade-off involved in searching for food. The more they have to look, the more energy they use, so in the worst situations, it can actually be better to do nothing.
“They might go hang out in an area with some sun or thermal cover, like cedar trees, to prevent heat loss,” Runia says. “It takes a lot of energy to stay warm, especially when it is extremely cold. Every little bit helps. They might travel a little farther when it is warmer, but they don’t go too far from food.”
THE BOYS CLUB
It’s not unusual to see hundreds of birds gathered in a small area in the winter, and it’s fairly common to see large groups of gobblers in the larger flock. It’s a sight most obvious in the West. Runia says that’s because suitable habitat and available foods are significantly limited in states like South Dakota.
You’ll never see huge flocks of birds in the spring. Mature toms spend more time alone searching for hens than hanging out with other males that time of year. Hens also scatter as they search for nesting sites.
Although scientists aren’t sure why adult gobblers hang out in large groups in the winter, the reason could be as simple as safety. The more eyes watching for danger, the less likely one of them will fall victim to a predator. Runia thinks that gobbler-only flocking behavior may be because gobblers are more reclusive to begin with.
“They tend to stay away from humans the rest of the year, but the need for food can force them to go places they probably wouldn’t go the rest of the year,” he says. “Gobblers will stay together, but they also will mingle with hens and jakes around food sources.”
Horton doesn’t see that self-segregation as much in his region, but it’s not out of the question. Like Western birds, gobblers in other regions will mingle with hens and jakes for a simple reason: They have to eat, and if they have to share it with hens, they will.
Gobblers really aren’t that much different than hens, at least not in the winter. They may prefer to hang out with other gobblers, but when it comes to survival, a turkey is a turkey.