Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Adirondack Wild Turkey in Winter

There are only a few dozen species of birds capable of surviving the rigors of an Adirondack winter, and of these, the wild turkey is one that is more closely associated with the warmer and less snowy regions to our south than the boreal woodlands to the north.

While the turkey is traditionally viewed as one the most successful inhabitants of open, temperate forests, the cold-hardy nature of this bird and its resourceful and adaptable traits permit it to survive throughout the Park, even during winters when intense cold and deep snows are the rule for lengthy periods of time.

With its large, round body and small head, the wild turkey possesses a shape well designed for retaining heat. Despite the lack of feathers on its head, the turkey is able to hold its head close enough to its body for much of the day to reduce heat loss from the limited amount of exposed skin that occurs on its face and over its skull. A dense covering of plumage over the core of its body, along with a layer of fat, helps this bird effectively conserve body heat.

This bird is also known to restrict its movements to sections of forests that are sheltered from the prevailing winds, thereby limiting its exposure to intolerable chill factors. Additionally, the turkey tends to avoid naturally occurring cold pockets where frigid air can settle and create an arctic-like microclimate.

During winter in temperate woodlands, the turkey is well known for scratching through the shallow covering of snow in order to access acorns, hickory nuts and other sizeable seeds that have fallen to the forest floor in late autumn. Because of the highly nutritious contents of these items, the turkey is able to satisfy its demand for nourishment throughout this bleak season.

In the Adirondacks, the lack of oak and hickory trees, along with the absence of numerous other forms of vegetation that the turkey is known to depend on for food may seem to greatly restrict this bird’s ability to survive in our geographic region. Additionally, the deep snow pack that typically forms may likewise appear to be an insurmountable obstacle to the turkey’s success in the Park. However, the digestive system of the turkey has allowed it to completely forego its traditional sources of food and utilize items available in our deciduous woodlands.

During years with relatively light snow accumulations, the turkey is able to scratch down to the froze layer of leaf litter in order to access beechnuts, maple and ash keys, wild black cherries and other seeds that may be mixed in with this dead matter. The turkey also bites off the buds of various trees and shrubs and swallows these small, nutrient enriched twig fragments to gain nourishment.

Because of its preference for ingesting large, tough covered seeds, like acorns, the turkey has developed an enlarged gizzard at the upper end of its stomach which it uses to physically break down harden chunks of plant matter. The gizzard is forcefully contorted and pushes the contents into the stomach to mix it with digestive enzymes, initiating chemical action on the food. The mass is then pushed back into the gizzard for more pulverizing action. Most forms of plant matter swallowed by the turkey can eventually be broken down so that it can be utilized by this bird.

While this back and forth digestive action prepares the buds and small seeds ingested by the turkey for absorption into its system, the muscular expenditure of energy involved in this process also helps generate the internal warmth which the turkey needs to maintain a favorable body temperature in our climate.

Should the turkey be unable to find an adequate supply of food because of a coating of ice over the twig tips that it targets, or should unrelenting wind and cold prevent this bird from leaving the shelter of its roost to search for food, it can quietly sit for days with its head tucked tightly against its body in order to wait until conditions become favorable again.

The mild weather that the region has experienced this winter has been quite beneficial for the wild turkey, as it seems to prefer warmer and less snowy conditions. Should the weather turn more arctic-like for the remainder of the season, the turkey will adapt, as it is an extremely tough and cold-hardy member of the wildlife community here in the Adirondacks.

A version of this story first appeared in the Adirondack Almanack in 2012.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

7 Responses

  1. Cranberry Bill says:

    Tom, I like all your articles, but this one especially because I now know exactly what it means to “go cold turkey”.

  2. Lily says:

    Great article, Tom. Thanks for all the information. For a couple of years, I have enjoyed watching several hen turkeys pick away at the droppings under the bird feeders in my yard in Lk. Placid. My dog’s eyes get very wide when she sees these gigantic creatures in HER yard!

  3. Buck says:

    I think the wild turkey is currently doing fairly well in the Adirondacks. I see more of them all over the Park than ever. And while there are population concerns in other areas of the state, northern New York populations continue to grow. Wild turkey restoration in New York is one of the great stories of conservation.

  4. Meg Bernstein says:

    I watched the turkeys in my yard eating birdseed under the feeder, but also eating the spore cases of the ferns. They are the only animal I’ve seen eat the spore cases.

  5. Kyle says:

    Excellent article. They are most definitely a hardy bird. The extent to which they once supplied a ready source of food to all who populated the countryside shouldn’t be forgotten.

    My only concern for their future, is like most game animals, they’ve a tendency to spend a lot of time feeding in the fallow corn fields through fall, many of which these days are growing Monsanto’s genetically altered Frankencorn, treated heavily with highly toxic pesticides & herbicides. Doesn’t make for desirable meat for us or a promising future for them.

    • Boreas says:

      I hear ya. I wouldn’t look for Monsanto to be going away any time soon. But who wouldn’t want a turkey with 3 drumsticks?!?

  6. Hank Burchard says:

    This is the clearest and most concise description I’ve ever read about how wild turkeys cope with winter. Mr. Kalinowski’s students at Saranac were lucky to have such a teacher.

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