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The beautiful tom is a Merriam's turkey, photo courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Native to Nebraska, wild turkeys were sighted by Lewis and Clark while traveling along the Missouri River in Eastern Nebraska. Unfortunately, by 1915 the turkeys were gone, hunted by predators as well as Nebraskans for the family table. Turkeys were restocked in 1931, 1959, and again in 1961 and 1962. That last catch and release project of 518 birds resulted in about 3,000 birds in Nebraska in 1966. Like the white-tailed deer, turkey populations are now at an all-time high in the US.

Male wild turkeyTurkeys are faring well these days, thanks to agriculture and land use practices that provide food, nesting cover, and winter habitat. The adult male or tom, has a featherless head and throat, with red wattles, and a beard. When excited, a tom's head will turn blue. The male is quite a bit larger than the female hen, with iridescent bronze, copper, and green feathers. Hens are dull gray and brown colored.

In spring, toms puff out their feathers, spread their tails, and strut to compete for hens. After mating, a hen will make a nest - a shallow depression in the soil with vegetation. According the National Wild Turkey Federation report, "Habitat Management for Wild Turkeys in Nebraska, "Most nesting in Nebraska occurs between April 15 and July 1." A hen will lay 10 to 14 eggs, one per day, and incubate them for about 4 weeks. Sometimes eggs are eaten by predators such as raccoons, opossums, skunks, snakes, or even domestic dogs. In that case hens will often retest.

Wild turkey nestThe young, called poults, leave the nest right after hatching, following the hen who feeds them until they learn to find food on their own in a few days. Bad weather and predation cause over half of the poults to die during the first month. The young birds eat insects and spiders for the needed high protein content. Traveling in flocks, turkeys look for nuts, berries, insects, and snails. At dusk, they roost in cottonwood or other large trees. Poults and adults fall prey to coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls, and domestic dogs.

Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey to be the national bird of the US, instead of the bald eagle. "For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

Tom Turkey
Turkey Eggs
Jan Hygnstrom
Jan Hygnstrom
Former Project Manager, Agronomy & Horticulture

Jan Hygnstrom shares timely information about plants you might see on your acreage and topics related to managing onsite waste water systems. Jan's background includes a horticulture degree and work in UNL's Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Pesticide Education. In 2001, along with several colleagues, Jan helped lay the groundwork for the formation of NOWWA, Nebraska's professional organization for those in the waste water industry. NOWWA works to protect human health and the environment by ensuring the proper handling of onsite waste water systems.