Keep walking pal

As if to say back off, a tom turkey fans to urge another male to stay away from a group of nearby females.

Most of us, if we’re lucky, get to see a wild turkey or two in the spring. But Tom Gayvert and his family have lived with a flock for about 10 to 15 years.

“They seem to come and go,” Gayvert said. “There are a lot of other places they like to visit up and down the road.”

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Snood and wattle

The fleshy part of a turkey that grows off its nose is called a snood while the bright red flesh below is a wattle. Tom turkeys have these attributes to attract females during the spring breeding season.

Maybe you’ve seen the Gayverts’ uninvited guests while driving south of Joliet on Highway 212. Just before the bridge over Rock Creek, on the left side of the road, there’s often a flock of dark-feathered turkeys pacing around the family’s property, resembling prehistoric vagrants. Sometimes they’re socializing right on the edge of the highway as if ignorant of the danger vehicles present.

“People think they’re stupid, but they’re a pretty smart bird,” Gayvert said, adding that like people, there are some dim turkeys.

The turkeys showed up after a wildland fire between Columbus and Joliet burned some of their favorite habitat, Gayvert said. At first it was a few, but the flock has slowly grown over the years, although predators like foxes, coyotes and eagles do manage to thin out the young hatchlings, called poults.

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Jakes

Younger male turkeys, like these, are called jakes. Males are identifiable by their redder heads, beards that jut from their breasts and spurs on their legs.

Nonnatives

Merriams turkeys, the most common species found in Montana, aren’t native to the state. They were first introduced in 1954 to the Judith Mountains near Lewistown by what was then the Department of Fish and Game, now named Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The birds had been shipped in from Colorado.

In the following two years they were released in the Long Pines and Ashland National Forest, both in southeastern Montana. About the same time the Eastern species of wild turkeys were illegally released in the Flathead Valley.

It took a long time, and many other transplants coordinated in part by groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation, for the birds to grow to the robust populations that have allowed them to populate much of the eastern two-thirds of the state. One estimate put the statewide population at 120,000 turkeys.

Although not a popular hunting target in Montana compared to big game species like deer and elk, FWP annually sells about 25,000 turkey tags. The spring turkey hunting season begins Saturday, April 8, in Montana and runs through May 21. No hens can be shot in the spring. In the fall, all turkeys are fair game and they can be hunted from Sept. 1 through Jan. 1. A rifle or handgun can be used to shoot a turkey in the fall season, where allowed, but only a shotgun or bow can be used in the spring.

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Turkey fan

A male turkey fans his tail feather in a display of his attributes. Seen here from behind, it's evident the turkey drops its wings to the ground as it fans.

Gobbler gazing

Gayvert isn’t a turkey hunter, but he’s spent plenty of time getting to know the flock that haunts his property. Especially during the spring breeding season — which is occurring right now — the entertainment can get pretty lively.

“We’ve sat and watched them go from start to finish, it’s quite a show to watch,” he said. “The females play hard to get. Then they do their mating dance. Turkey TV we call it.”

After the mating season the hens disappear to nest and lay their eggs. A hen will lay as many as 11 eggs about 2 to 3 inches long that will hatch in about 28 days.

The males, all tuckered out from their strutting, tail feather fanning and occasional fights, tend to loaf around Gayvert’s home for a while longer, like guests who don’t want to go home after the party is over.

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Strutting

A big tom turkey fans his feathers and struts next to other males. Toms compete to breed, much like other bird species such as grouse.

Pluses, minuses

On the plus side, having all of those mouths to feed keeps the grasshopper population down on the Gayvert’s property, and the birds clean up any seed that falls from the family’s bird feeder. On the negative side they sometimes roost in trees next to the house, using the branches to bombard the log home with turkey turds. The biggest flock they ever had numbered about 50 birds, Gayvert said.

Soon the family won’t have turkey TV any longer, or get to see the bears, foxes, beaver, raccoons and skunks that occasionally move through the property. The Gayverts are moving after 27 years.

So long, turkeys.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.