Watching Michigan wild turkeys through a telephoto lens during winter gives you a new perspective on survival


March 01, 2018

With the recent cold weather highlighted by below zero temperatures and deep snow, ya gotta ask yourself will gobblers survive. How wild turkeys make it through Michigan’s harsh winter is a bit of a phenomenon. Some fall to coyote predation, others succumb to life threatening weather conditions, while many handle old man winter with no problem. Here’s why.

I slipped though the knee deep snow in Grand Traverse County in search of wild turkey. Air temperatures were in the teens and after a night of catching smelt from Green Lake I decided to check on a local flock on my hunting turf. Huge Y-shaped footprints in the snow confirmed turkey were still alive and I followed them to a nearby cedar swamp. There under the cover of the thick conifer trees I located a flock consisting of four big gobblers, several adult hens and several poults. They were standing motionless, most stood in the snow on one foot as I snapped photos. A break in the low hanging clouds brought sunlight to the valley and several birds moved to a small clearing where they could bask in the midday sun. One old gobbler actually broke into a full fan in front of some hens as if to say “spring is coming and soon I’ll be in courtship mood. What about you?” But the hens ignored him.

Watching Michigan wild turkeys through a telephoto lens during winter gives you a new perspective on survival outcome. There are several characteristics you notice. First, birds are much more lethargic, resting, standing on one foot and spending most of their time with head tucked under a wing or lowered into a thick layer of feathers. I found them somewhat easy to stalk and only a few adult birds were standing with head erect on lookout. Most of the birds seemed more concerned with keeping warm than watching for predators. Finally an adult hen noticed me and sounded an alarm putt. All the heads instantaneously came straight up, birds headed straight away in a long line with adults clearing a runway through the deep snow. None of the birds flew away and their retreat seemed a tad slow almost like they didn’t want to trudge through the monumental snow drifts. It is my opinion that Michigan turkeys in survival mode are easy targets for hawks and coyotes and sustained winter weather could have a huge impact on the overall population due to excessive predation.

Studies conducted by the National Wild Turkey Federation have discovered that 73% of predation comes from the sky on silent wings. Red tailed hawks are the major wild turkey predator and throughout Michigan the population is booming. Southern Michigan has huge populations of hawks and the impact on turkey populations is profound. Red tailed hawks prefer to dine on young poults throughout the year but when winter weather arrives they too become desperate for food and will attack adult turkeys, no problem.

Coyote can stalk turkeys through deep snow with ease. When they spot birds they slink low in the mounds of powdery white substance and crawl within striking distance before they charge full speed ahead and dive on unsuspecting turkeys with their head under a wing.

Big gobbler struggling to walk in deep snow. If snow accumulations cover food sources some turkeys will eat tree buds, dried berries, crabapples, tree bark, anything to survive. Author photos

Extreme severe winter weather with below zero temperatures and howling winds cause turkeys to huddle behind trees, next to fallen trees, deep in thick brush found in gullies, ravines or valleys offering refuge from the wind. Because wild turkeys are in survival mode and battling with the severe elements they sort of let down their natural instincts to be ever-wary, constantly watching, alert for predators. Turkeys huddled in a snow drift or deep in a swamp become easy prey for a coyote who is sweeping the area looking for dinner. Coyote frequently locate wild turkeys using their sense of smell and stalking likely hideouts going upwind. Once they smell birds they lower their profile, slink through the underbrush and pounce on unsuspecting turkeys that are somewhat dormant from the nasty weather. After a harsh winter it is not uncommon to see gobblers with tail feathers missing from coyote attacks. In fact, statewide when you see a turkey with the center gone from its tail you can bet a coyote charged an unsuspecting bird, but at the last second the turkey took to flight and the coyote only got its teeth and paws into the tail feathers.

The impact of coyotes on Michigan’s total turkey population is simply unknown. The DNR has no studies or relevant data. However, the more brutal the winter is with deep snow the easier it becomes for coyote to ambush turkeys and the more difficult it becomes for birds to defend persistent predator attacks.

So, what do turkeys eat during winter? The answer is simple; whatever they can find. Of course southern Michigan birds tend to congregate where they can locate corn and perhaps the biggest source is corn stubble fields. Savvy birds tend to congregate where they can raid farms that offer cow silage storage bins and at times will enter feeding yards where food is strewn by foraging cows. Another excellent source of food for winter turkeys is cow manure spread on fields. Some manure is laced with whole kernel corn not digested by cows and manure also is rich with digested alfalfa and other grasses. Some areas in Michigan that have large populations of turkeys are created by local dairy farmers who cast manure into local fields throughout winter.

Another excellent source of food is provided by concerned sportsmen who grow and maintain food plots. Standing corn and beans provide much needed food for deer and turkey when Old Man Winter sends howling winds, deep snow and below zero temperatures to Michigan. Animals and wild birds tend to congregate close to food sources and large flocks of healthy, well fed wild turkeys on alert act as a buffer to protect the flock from predation. Come spring the large flock disperses and birds cover the terrain for miles. Turkey populations remain strong in locations where they are provided food by concerned Michigan sportsmen.

At one time Michigan’s DNR would plant corn and leave it throughout winter to feed wildlife. Wildlife flourished in areas surrounding standing corn fields. However, Michigan’s DNR has chosen to limit planting crops and the few fields they do plant are harvested and the grain is sold. The DNR’s decision to stop planting crops for wildlife has had a disastrous impact on Michigan’s deer and turkey populations on public land.

“Wild turkeys simply do not survive winter very well in northern Michigan”, said John Collins of Pentwater. “When the DNR outlawed feeding deer, folks in our area stopped setting out corn and both the deer and turkey populations went downhill at an alarming rate. Our northern population of wild turkeys isn’t doing very well, the numbers are shockingly low and I doubt if they will rebound without some sort of subsistence feeding program.”

But wild turkeys are tough birds and can go days without food or water. When snow gets packed hard they can walk on the surface and escape coyotes with ease but food sources are hidden deep below the white blanket. That’s when they eat grasses, tree buds, dried berries, crabapples and nearly anything they can swallow.

With fond memories I recall a flock of wild turkey in Fenner Park in Lansing feeding on a crabapple tree. It was mid-January with deep snow and freezing temperatures when I noted three big gobblers holding desperately onto the bobbing branches of the relatively small tree. They were busy pecking at tiny apples as the branches swayed. Below the waving tree were a dozen hens and poults scrambling for berries as they dropped to the ground. This is a classic example of how wild turkeys are true survivalists in the purest form.

I followed the flock led by three adult gobblers with 10-inch plus beards dragging in the snow. The trio marched through the deep snow to bird feeders found outside the Welcome Center. Two hours later they slipped into a nearby cedar swamp, took a long nap, and then waddled to a nearby oak ridge. Deer had beaten them to the acorn trees and the blanket of snow was covered with turned up leaves. The turkeys pecked at the leaves, scratched at the exposed ground and eventually excavated acorns. This is an excellent example of how wild turkeys capitalize on various food sources to make it through winter.

The flock moved to a ridge highlighted by huge, old hardwood trees and one by one they flew up and took position on the large horizontal branches. I stood in awe to see the beautiful birds huddled against tree limbs as they took roost. The southwest wind was blowing 20 mph causing the branches to dance in the breeze. “How do they hang on?” I asked myself.

More importantly, how can they survive being fully exposed far above the frozen earth night after night? I checked on the big gobblers at midnight. Through my 8×50 Nikon binoculars the huge black birds with trophy beards highlighted by big city lights looked fully asleep with heads tucked under their wings.

If I had to predict how wild turkeys will survive the 2018 winter, I’d say pretty well. Although I believe the outlook is dismal for northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula because of deep snow, severe cold and predation. Red-tailed hawks and coyote must eat too, and I predict they will impact turkey numbers in certain areas. Man, the hawk numbers in southern Michigan are out of control, way too many. And certain locations are overrun with coyotes which will gobble turkeys by the dozen when winter conditions favor their sneaky killing strategies.

If winter 2018 gets ugly, stays brutal and serves up extreme cold mixed with deep snow you can bet turkey numbers will be negatively impacted. However, if weather stabilizes and offers winter thaws and warming trends you can count on better survival of wildlife. One thing is certain; wild turkeys are resilient, exhibit extreme stamina and are true survivors when it comes to Michigan’s cold winter weather. It is my opinion healthy wild turkeys exhibit toughness on a monumental scale and they can persevere through Michigan’s extreme climate changes. You can be there will be some boss gobblers struttin’ this spring.