During the years following World War II, Louisiana’s eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) population was at its lowest point. In 1946 it was reported that only 14 isolated flocks totaling less than 1,500 wild turkeys remained throughout the state. Tireless efforts by LDWF biologists and other Department staff to restock wild trapped turkeys resulted in a rebound in Louisiana’s wild turkey population. During this effort, others such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, private landowners, and others lended vital support. Today, wild turkeys are distributed across Louisiana and most suitable habitat is occupied.
The eastern wild turkey is the largest game bird native to Louisiana. Gobblers average about 17 pounds with some birds weighing up to 25 pounds. Hens average between 8 and 11 pounds. Gobblers have a bronzy, iridescent body plumage with black-tipped breast feathers, and hens have light-brown breast feather tips. Gobblers typically have a tuft of modified feathers called a “beard” protruding from the breast, along with an upwardly curving spur on the lower legs. Hens typically lack the beard and spurs.
Turkeys are opportunistic feeders, meaning they consume a wide variety of foods throughout the year. During the spring, green grasses and leaves are consumed in large quantities. During the summer and early fall, ripened seeds of grasses and other plants become more common in the diet. From fall through early spring acorns and berries comprise a major part of the turkey diet. During all times of the year, insects are an important food source. Turkeys also feed on domestic crops, such as corn, soybeans, and chufas. Poults eat large quantities of insects and other animal matter to get the protein needed for rapid development.
Turkey hens nest on the ground, with peak nesting occurring from late March through April. Clutches average about 10 eggs and incubation lasts 26 to 28 days. Excessive rain, cool temperatures, drought, predation, and a host of other factors can influence hatching success. A good hatch and poult survival that carries into the fall are keys to sustaining wild turkey numbers.
Once the poults hatch they will follow the hen from the nest to feeding sites (bugging areas) where they feed primarily on invertebrates. At about 10 to 14 days the poults begin to fly short distances. As each week passes, flight and predator evasion skills develop, increasing survival rates.
The bumps of skin on a turkey’s neck and head are called caruncles and the protrusion from the base of the beak is called a snood. Both the caruncles and snood change color when gobblers are displaying and are used to attract the attention of hens.
In order to meet public demands for wild turkey, the Turkey Program and Technical Services Program offer technical assistance to improve habitat on public and private lands (http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/assistance-private-landowners-and-m). Program biologists also conduct research to assess and improve management. Several population monitoring surveys are conducted by regional and program biologists to develop population indices and track population trends of turkeys. Personnel also represent the Department on various committees which are involved in monitoring and formulating regional and national programs which may have impacts on small game wildlife.