Watch out for wild turkeys!

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) have been showing up in Winnipeg this past month and residents may be worried about the damage to their trees. When the turkeys roost, they can break branches and cause other damage because they enjoy buds, stems and leaves of certain plants, shrubs and trees. They also eat seeds and bugs, small snakes, and snails. Their droppings are none too pleasant,

To discourage them, empty feeders, clean up nuts or other fruits and try placing stakes tied with mylar streamers at eye level (three to four feet) around your yard. Or invest in a
motion detector that will spray water when tripped.

Often in spring, a male will select four females for his harem, so you will often see them in groups of five. The female will lay 10 to 15 eggs. After about 28 to 29 days, eggs hatch and offspring leave the nest within 24 to 36 hours to begin foraging for themselves. The poults, as they are called, will stick with mom for the summer, then the males will leave to join a flock of adult males, while the females will join an adult female flock.

Called a jake, the immature male has a short, hairy beard that he wears on his puffed up chest. This beard will continue to grow, reaching nine inches or even longer, until his name changes to Tom. The female is small and petite, about half the male’s size, and quite beardless. She, too, will change her name, this time from jenny to hen, as she becomes an adult. Sometimes, when older, she will also grow a beard — just like some human females.

Jake is an excellent singer and dancer, softly gobbling and drumming while strutting his stuff with his tail well fanned. She hunkers down, demure and docile, letting him walk all over her (a practice known as “treading”) in preparation for the ultimate act. Dominant toms often get a close relative to help in the mating game – the assistant male never gets to mate, but Tom more than makes up for that in the number of offspring (up to seven times more) he fathers due to his brother’s help in the courtship.

Today, wild turkeys can be found in most provinces in Canada, but it wasn’t always so. The native range of the Eastern wild turkey extended north into the New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario and there were a few of a different variety (the smaller Merriams) in southern Alberta and British Columbia, all of which were hunted to extinction. Neither species extended into Manitoba.

In 1958, 16 wild turkeys were released near the town of Miami, Manitoba. This flock now numbers about 10,000. Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan then released some wild stock in 1962, and those flocks are slowly growing. In 1984, Ontario got on the “bird wagon” and began re-introducing wild turkeys, which had become almost extinct by 1930. Now Ontario’s wild turkey population is estimated to be between 70,000 and 100,000.

Turkeys have quite a vocabulary. Males gobble a siren song to females while they drum their chests. Females yelp to tell males about their willing location and to call their chicks to order. Both can purr (signals contentment); cluck (to get attention); putt (alarm call); cutt (signal excitement); cackle (leaving or returning to roost); kee-kee (young bird crying “I’m lost’); and whine (indicating aggravation or on a cooler note, just chilling while feeding).

Turkeys see in colour with a 270 degree line of sight. Their eyesight is about three times better than that of humans, but they have poor night vision.

There are many theories about how the turkey got its name. One has it that turkeys were first introduced into Europe and Britain from Mexico via Constantinople, which is in Turkey. Thinking this was the origin of the bird, people named it after that country. Another story has it that the Guinea fowl from Africa was called a turkey cock in Britain for the same reason and when pioneers saw the large wild turkey in America, they named it after the turkey cock. Ironically, the Turks call the birds Hindi, meaning bird from India. The turkey itself probably doesn’t care what you call him — just as long as you don’t call him dinner!

Yes, wild turkeys can fly. So can domestic ones but only for short distances as they are weighted down with fat for our dinner tables. Some are so fat they can’t even mate so domestic turkeys are artificially inseminated. The average flight speed of the wild turkey is about 60 mph. They run pretty fast too and have been clocked 25 mph.

Wild toms weigh in at about 18 pounds on average. The hens average somewhere around 10 pounds. The heaviest wild turkey on record was 37 pounds!

Dorothy Dobbie is the publisher of Manitoba Gardener magazine. You can contact 204-940-2700 for subscriptions or go to