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.