Wildlife: A day in the life of incubating hen turkeys

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At about 7:15 p.m. on Monday morning, I settled in to a comfy spot about 20 yards from the edge of the woods. The plan was to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature for a few hours.

Almost immediately a field sparrow's bouncing whistle caught my attention. Then a catbird mewed and a towhee chinked.

These first sounds came from the field behind me. To remain as inconspicuous as possible, I didn't bother turning around. Then off to my left, I noticed something skulking through the field. Maybe it was a fox or even a bobcat.

Not wanting to spook whatever it was, I turned my head slowly. It was a hen turkey, walking purposefully in a low crouch up the hill toward a multiflora rose thicket.

This was certainly unexpected because incubating hens usually sit tight until mid-day. Upon reaching the thicket, the hen entered quickly and settled down, presumably on a nest. Very slowly I rotated the spotting scope in her direction and dialed her into sharp focus. It was now obvious she was incubating eggs.

What spooked her off the nest in the first place? Hens typically tend the nest all night long and remain until mid-day. This is the biological basis for spring turkey hunting hours that end at noon during the first two weeks of the season. It protects hens when they leave the nest to feed, water, and get a little exercise.

Perhaps a coyote had strolled by before I arrived, and the hen fled the nest. Or maybe I had alarmed her by getting too close.

In any case, I now had an opportunity to watch an incubating hen turkey, and thanks to the 45x lens on the scope, I had a bird's eye view. Fortunately a small shrub partially obscured both my view of her and hers of me.

Over the course of the next three hours, I learned that an incubating turkey's primary virtues are patience and vigilance. She sat patiently and quietly. When a red-tailed hawk screamed overhead, her gaze turned skyward. And twice she reached down into the nest to turn the eggs to insure that each was getting sufficiently warm. Other than an occasional blink of a hen's eye, that was it.


Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 WMNY-AM (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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