Outdoor Articles

Turkey Biology and Behavior: Social Structure and Behavior

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Turkey Hunting

Social Structure

Turkeys habitually occur in flocks. Hens and young of the year often stay together throughout the summer in family groups or flocks of several families, with an older hen as the dominant bird of each family, and possibly of each group. In the fall young males or “jakes” form their own flocks and stay together through the winter. These groups of jakes may join adult males in the spring, during the breeding season. Adult male flocks form in the summer after the breeding season and remain together until spring, when some toms go off by themselves. But, males may form small groups of two or more birds during the breeding season. I have seen as many as six toms in one group. Several groups of gobblers may form an alliance and fight other groups of gobblers for dominance and breeding rights. Since dominance is established within each family as the young birds grow, and the male siblings of each family often stay together into adulthood, the dominant male of each group is often the sibling of the other males in the group.

Winter Behavior

During the winter turkeys separate into flocks of different sexes and age groups; the old and young hens remain in their own flocks, the jakes in other flocks, and the toms in yet other flocks. This flocking instinct is strong in most grazing animals that depend on their ability to see and hear for defense. Because they spend so much time eating they can’t always be on guard. Therefore, the more animals there are together, the more time each one can spend eating while others watch; there is security in numbers.

Spring Behavior

With the approach of spring the weather gets warmer, daylight hours become longer and turkeys get the urge to mate. The jakes may join the toms and begin forming small groups that search for hens. Both the jakes and toms begin to associate with the hens as they all look for new spring growth, succulent grasses, forbes and insects that appear near stream beds and on south facing slopes that warm up first. They look for leftover agricultural crops, mast crops of nuts and acorns, and pick through cow chips, cattle feeding areas, and old and new plowing for insects and leftover food. Where turkeys inhabit hilly or mountainous terrain they may even change home ranges, seeking higher elevations as snow depth decreases and new forage becomes available. They may travel from as little as a quarter mile, to as many as several miles between their winter and spring range.

Daily Activity

Turkeys normally roost in trees at night, wake up about an hour before daylight, begin calling about a half-hour before daylight, and fly down from their roost from a half-hour to ten minutes before daylight. Once they are on the ground they usually look for food. If they land in wooded areas they may look for nearby food; they generally move to an open feeding area within a half hour. Whether they are in wooded, shrub or open areas they search for seeds, nuts, grasses, forbes and small insects on the ground.


I’ve seen a wintering flock of turkeys spend four hours in a cornfield in early spring, prior to the breeding season. However, the normal amount of time spent by large flocks or groups feeding in open areas is about an hour to an hour and a half. Then they move to a new opening or into the woods. During mid-day the turkeys may loaf in wooded areas and fly up to roost. They generally begin to feed again in the late afternoon, and fly back up to roost at about sundown.

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