...but spring is the perfect time to listen for gobbling Toms and witness their incredible courtship displays, and thanks to conservation and restoration efforts, it's much easier to find them in the woods now...
A male Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) walks in full regalia as he puffs his feathers up in a courtship display. He really does have an air of royalty as he glides through the brown leaves, wings dragging the ground, and his iridescent green, bronze and gold feathers catching the light perfectly for maximum effect.
In early spring, when winter's leaves are still brown and crackle underfoot, male turkeys start strutting for females. It's an image we usually think of at Thanksgiving, but spring is when you usually see it!
...every emotion a turkey has shows on his face where "mood colors" of bright red, blue and white can change in seconds when hens or other toms are around (source: "Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket," by John Eastman, pg. 7).
Turkey lingo! The skin that hangs from a turkey's beak is a snood. The bumpy, wart-like projections on the skin...caruncles, and the crazy rope of feathers that hangs from his chest...a beard! What's a group of turkeys called? ...a rafter or a gang (source: USGS).
This gobbler (male turkey) had 6 hens in his harem, but they weren't interested in his strutting and displaying, and most, like this hen, walked away non-plussed.
Turkeys roost in trees at night. They also will fly up to trees when startled (or when they hear a camera shutter click...). This female flew effortlessly up to branches about 30 feet off the ground. She remained there for about 10 minutes before deciding to fly back down and join the foraging flock.
Courting Toms take their job seriously. I watched this male and the six hens in his harem for over 45 minutes. Only once did he let his feathers down, and that was only for a second or two. While the females foraged and ate seeds, the male never once tried to eat. This behavior was confirmed in Eastman's "Birds of Forest, Yard, & Thicket," pg 7, where he writes, "Belligerent toms strut and display in spring, sometimes hardly feeding for days at a time."
I love the return of the Wild Turkey. When I was a kid, turkeys were not in any woods I ever played in. For me they were birds that showed up on Thanksgiving decorations and only took the form of a male in courtship display. According to "The Birds of Ohio," by Bruce Peterjohn (pg. 143), Wild Turkeys were extirpated from Ohio by 1900, so no wonder I had never seen one in the wild, but in February of 1956, Wild Turkeys were released in southeast Ohio. In the 80s they were released in the glaciated counties, and in the 90s, in the central and western counties. For the past three years I have heard and seen them regularly along the Little Miami River. Before then, I saw them once about eight years ago along the bike trail. They are skittish birds and can disappear into the brush and woods with amazing speed. I saw this rafter of turkeys in Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau in the woods behind my mother- and father-in-law's home last week when Matty and I headed down for spring break.