Ask Dr. Tom: Do hens leave their nests of eggs to roost at night?

When wild turkey hens begin to lay a clutch of eggs they do not spend much time on the nest. They scratch out a small depression often with a bit of overhead cover in the form of a branch or shrub. The hen lays one egg a day in the nest until her clutch is complete with 10 to 12 eggs. During the egg-laying period she might kick a few leaves over the eggs when she leaves the site. In the two weeks the hen spends laying, she will roost in trees each night.

Conventional wisdom has been that once a hen begins to incubate she will stop tree roosting and spend every night on the nest; however, recent studies using GPS and satellite telemetry has shown that some hens tree roost a couple of times early in the incubation period. Other hens stay on the nest at night right from the get go after they start to incubate. Wild turkey hens incubate their clutches for 26 to 28 days. Shortly after initiating incubation, hens settle in on the nest every night. The fidelity of hens to their nests increases with time spent incubating. They are less likely to abandon after they spend a week or so on the nest.

The nesting and brood-rearing season is the most dangerous time of year for hen turkeys. Their home range is reduced in size and they are alone — a recipe for successful predation. Hens ground roost almost the whole time they are incubating, making them more susceptible to being killed by a hungry predator. In addition, hens with broods ground roost for another 10 to 12 days after hatching because the poults do not fly well enough to roost in trees. A hen successful at hatching a brood of young will have spent about 38 days on the ground at night if she survives that stressful period.

Good quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat distributed across the landscape is essential to wild turkey recruitment. Nesting and brood-rearing habitat should be near so that hens with broods do not have to move far to find a suitable spot to raise their young. Careful planning and habitat management can have a positive effect on the number of successful hens and brood survival.

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