By Kathy Whaley
One rainy morning last spring on my way to work I suddenly found myself slamming on the brakes. There, out of the wet, misty brush, came one, then two, then three, four, five, six…in all 52 wild turkeys strutting their way across the road in front of me. Mouth dropped and eyes widened, I could only stare. I had ever seen this many turkeys at once!
This was one of the many flocks of Rio Grande wild turkeys (named for the general area in which they are found –the central plains states) we now have at Hagerman Refuge. But, this has not always been the case. By the late 1800’s, turkeys throughout Texas had been hunted to very low numbers. Since then hunting regulations and better habitat management practices have allowed turkey populations to steadily increase in most areas. Several flocks of 100+ turkeys use habitat on and adjacent to the Refuge including brushy areas next to streams and the lake, or mixed oak forests near the creeks. At Hagerman, turkeys are sometimes visible along field edges or roadsides with trees and like to forage for insects and seeds in wooded areas.
Female turkeys weigh about 10 pounds while males tip the scales at closer to 20. Their iridescent feathers have a green-coppery sheen to them with the tips of the tail and lower back feathers being light tan. Male turkeys are known for their “beards” which are actually bristly tassels rather than feathers and grow for life instead of molting. Wild turkeys prefer to nest in grass or brush at least 18 inches tall and usually lay 10-11 eggs that hatch in 28 days. Young turkeys (poults) are up and running behind the hen within the first 24hours. Being generally ground dwellers, there is a high mortality rate on poults by critters including bobcats, foxes, snakes, raccoons, and hogs. Safe night roosting sites are critical to turkey survival. They typically seek trees that are 40 feet or taller and tend to roost in groups.
Although you can see turkeys any time of year, spring is an especially fun time to look for these unique birds. Males can often be seen strutting around and fanning their tail feathers in hopes of impressing the ladies. When you visit Hagerman Refuge, keep an eye out for signs of wild turkeys by looking for scratching in the dirt or leaves, spotting their large three-toed foot print, or listen for gobbling sounds coming from the woods.
For information on activities at Hagerman NWR, please visit http://www.friendsofhagerman.com/.