Thursday, March 10, 2011

Turkey Damage in the Woods

There’s nothing odd about seeing a fluffy layer of leaves on the woodland floor, except when those same leaves were pressed flat to the ground just a few weeks earlier. During January and February, a series of wet, heavy snows saturated the leaves and mashed them into a thin layer covering the soil. The woodland floor looked like it had been covered in leaf patterned linoleum. So how did they get fluffed up again?

Enter the Wild Turkeys. Turkeys on the move will travel in a column. When they begin to forage, they can quickly turn that column into a skirmish line. I’ve seen a flock leave the wooded slopes looking as though they had been visited by a 50 foot wide roto-tiller. Like any common farmyard fowl, turkeys scratch the ground as they search for food. This is an automatic action that they perform even when food is in plain sight before them. In years like this, when there is little food to be found beneath the leaves, both the time spent foraging and the tilling of the hillsides increases. Too much of this type of activity can lead to soil erosion in the woods.

Wild Turkeys were not common here 25 years ago. Evidence of their passing was limited to a few areas of disturbed leaves and an occasional spot of exposed earth. Now, the entire woodland floor is disturbed and bare ground is found everywhere. At the time of European settlement, turkeys were abundant in this area. If turkeys are a natural part of the woodland, why do I view them as a threat to the integrity of Blue Jay Barrens and why do I view their actions as damaging? I think it’s the same problem the dinosaurs had in Jurassic Park; the ecosystem the turkeys are exploiting today is not the same as that found a couple of hundred years ago. We don’t have the same species composition that historically produced huge quantities of nuts upon which the turkeys sustained themselves through the winter.

Loss of the nuts hasn’t bothered the modern day turkey. They are quite adept at exploiting whatever food source is available. Even in the best of years, nuts are in short supply in late winter. Woodland foraging turkeys seek out early sprouting plants to fill the void. If it’s green, the turkeys will probably eat it.

The evergreen leaves of Christmas Ferns have been the focus of much turkey attention. There aren’t any leaves that haven’t suffered from some nibbling. Spring wildflowers will soon be sprouting. The turkeys will quickly take advantage of this bounty. As the turkey population increases, there is a noticeable decline in the numbers of blooming spring flowers at Blue Jay Barrens.

The ferns will recover, but they’ll suffer from stress. Plants can survive some stress with no ill effects. The problem comes when they suffer minor stress from many different sources. The cumulative effect of stress from various factors is often responsible for the death of the plant. It seems that many plants are already stressed by air and water quality issues which make them more susceptible to attack by insects and disease. It can’t help to add one more to the list of stressing agents.

The turkeys have even taken to excavating beneath fallen logs in search of food. When I first noticed this behavior about 15 years ago, I thought it was from a hen excavating a depression for its nest. No nests ever developed. As turkey numbers grew, the excavations became more numerous and often stretch the length of the log. I used to think of large fallen trees as perfect havens for salamanders, but I guess that’s no longer the case.


  1. Very interesting. It's nice to see you are back to give us our science lessons once again. :)

  2. HI Steve ....I have a idea. Rent a moving van, lore those Turkeys in there, and take them for a long ride preferable not to Maine!! ; }}
    Seriously, interesting info.,I would have not thought of them causing so much damage!
    We have some big flocks here..I have counted over 40 in a flock but they seem to be out in the large fields here. Haven't seen them only a couple lately because there all in your back yard. : }}

  3. Hi, Lois. Winter break's over and it's time to go back to school.

    Grammie g, I know you want these turkeys. If UPS will give me a bulk rate, I'll send them your way.

  4. We have a flock of about 30-40 turkeys that roost and consistently stay around our property in Adams County. I've never put much thought into the amount of damage they may or may not do throughout the winter and spring months. We did have a mast crop this year of acorns, though. Walking up the steeper slopes was nigh on impossible as they all acted like thousands of ball bearings under our feet. I'll have to start taking notice of any adverse affects of our turkey population.

  5. A shortage of predators may also contribute to the damage turkeys are doing. In past times predators would force turkeys to move more rather than stay in the same place where they can cause repeated damage.

    However, the damage they do may still be considered natural. Passenger pigeon flocks used to destroy whole forests with their dung and the weight of their bodies.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Mark. I agree with you that the turkey activity is natural. My concern is with how much natural activity my property can support when the surrounding landscape is far from natural. The woods surrounding my property have been broken into lots for homes, or are being trampled by cattle, or have been improperly timbered, or are being used as recreational areas for 4-wheelers, or are suffering from the many other land uses that make it difficult to maintain a healthy woodland ecosystem. When making management decisions, I'm constantly wondering just how far I should go to assure that the target ecosystems have a chance to develop. I also just plain miss the abundance of woodland wildflowers that were here 25 years ago.