In general, the average life expectancy for hens is three years and four years for toms. Everyone likes to blame predators as the chief factor when discussing a wild turkey’s life expectancy, but, while predation is no doubt a factor, there is a larger process to consider.
The NWTF’s director of conservation services, Mark Hatfield, points out a wild turkey’s life expectancy correlates to where it lives; that is, the farther a turkey must range to gather resources, its life expectancy decreases.
Wild turkeys that have to leave the safety of their roosting area and travel long distances to areas with more abundant food and water are expending more energy to reach those resources, and they are increasing their risk of stumbling upon a predator or a predator stumbling upon it.
Plain and simple, if a turkey has easily accessible resources, it is less likely to become prey.
Hatfield also notes predation is less of a problem for adult male turkeys than it is for eggs, poults and hens. Turkeys roost in trees to avoid predators, but if a hen is nesting, she is on the ground and more exposed to predation of herself and her eggs or brood. Hens are, therefore, more susceptible to predation than toms or jakes, leaving the average life expectancy of hens at three years and toms at four. Typical poult or egg predators are owls, hawks, crows, snakes, raccoons, bobcats and coyotes, to name but a few; some of these predators are region-specific.
“Thinking of birds taken while hunting as a random sample of the turkey population, you very seldom see a bird that would qualify as a four year old [based on beard and spur length and weight],” said Hatfield. “It is hard to pinpoint an exact age for a turkey beyond four years. While some turkeys do exceed these average lifespans, there’s little to no evidence we can use to verify it unless the bird was part of a research project, has an identifying band and the records declare an age at the time of original capture and/or release.”
Like predation, disease affects a wild turkey’s life expectancy, but it, too, is related to a turkey’s roaming distance. If a wild turkey has to seek resources at long distances from its roosting area, it will not be able to retain sufficient nutrients and is thus more susceptible to disease. Hatfield explains, “Turkeys are just like humans, in a sense. If we do not get all our necessary nutrients and we are expending a lot of energy, we are more likely to get sick.”
When population numbers drop, Hatfield points out it is not usually predation, over-hunting or disease, but usually something affecting poult production on a large scale. “People see dwindling numbers and immediately assume that it must be predators killing wild turkeys,” Hatfield said.
Habitat is the most significant factor when discussing a wild turkey’s life expectancy. If a turkey has to roam long distances to reach needed resources, it becomes subject to predation, suffers from decreased nutrition and becomes more susceptible to disease. Alternatively, if a turkey has access to a nutrition-rich, localized habitat that includes ideal brood range, then it is more likely to reach the upper ends of life expectancy, resulting in healthy poult production and ultimately a strong population.