By Mark Fike
With turkey season winding down or having ended in most of our readership area, this is a good time to examine the life of a baby turkey, called a poult. Poults are any baby turkeys less than 4 weeks old.
In most of the country during the months of February and March, gobblers start to establish a pecking order and dominance. Family groups of turkeys mix and breeding begins in March. Longer periods of daylight trigger hormones which start this process.
During this time prior to breeding, hens slip off from the group to find their own spot to establish a nest. Good nesting territory includes a good view but brush or grasses thick enough to hide the hen, and more importantly, her eggs. Hedgerows and fence lines are excellent places for hens as they can see danger coming but still be hidden. It is important that land managers and owners try not to mow fields in April and May if possible.
Once bred, she will begin laying eggs over a period of roughly 2 weeks. Once the last egg is laid, she will incubate constantly by sitting on the nest, taking very brief breaks only to feed. Every few hours she will get up, turn the eggs and move them around. Sometimes a hen will sit on the eggs for days at a time.
The eggs will need 26-28 days to hatch. When they begin to hatch, the hen will begin to cluck to encourage them and imprint them on her. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are able to feed themselves with a little guidance from mom. The term for being able to fend for oneself by feeding is precocial. All poults leave the nest within 24 hours.
At this time, the poults are very vulnerable to predators. Possums, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes are all very keen on catching a poult. Poults are very fast though and the mom communicates when there is danger nearby with a “putt.” The putt causes the little ones to scatter for the nearest cover, hunker down and remain completely still. Often, the mother hen will run the opposite direction sometimes dragging a wing to trick the threat into coming after her. Later she will circle back around to gather up her young.
Within 24 hours, the birds are feeding and pecking at moving insects such as spiders, ants and other invertebrates. They will eat seeds and tiny flowers too. By the end of the first week they will follow mom and dust, which is a healthy way to deal with mites and parasites, and the action also frees up loose feathers.
During the second and third weeks, the poults are growing feathers rapidly, eating all the bugs they can and learning a lot from their mother. Believe it or not, they can fly in short spurts too. By the third week they will graze on grass and seeds and even roost in low, small trees. This takes them out of a lot of danger. It is amazing how fast turkey poults grow.
The first few weeks are critical to the poults’ survival. Once they can get off the ground and fly, they can get away from most predators. By the 3-4 month mark they are starting to show signs of which sex they are. And by fall, they are distinguishable. By the new year, all growth as far as maturing is pretty much complete. Juvenile males are known as jakes and have beards shorter than 6 inches. They will be learning to gobble.
Poults live very hazardous lives. Not only do they face the threat of fanged predators noted above, but they also have to watch for the dangers from the sky. Hawks and eagles will take poults if given the chance. The little poults do have instincts to run and hide from shadows from above though.
Weather is another foe. Cold, damp rains in the spring are horrible on poult survival. Only 30-40% of nests supposedly hatch and of those, possibly only 1 of every 4 poults will make it on average. Hens that are in good shape and are able, will renest if their nest is destroyed. However, hens that lose their nest early in the incubation are more likely to try to renest than ones that incubated a few weeks and lost their nest. I once had a hen sitting on a nest on my property in August! That makes it very tough on the poults for the winter though.
This spring and summer, try not to let your dogs run loose in turkey territory until hens have their clutch of eggs hatched. Avoid mowing until mid-summer if possible and consider creating a turkey habitat too!