The wild turkey is not a social animal in the strict sense, but it has social interactions with other turkeys and in doing so follows social protocols. Dominance relationships and flocking behavior are of special interest.
A turkey flock becomes socially organized with each member holding a rank in the so-called pecking order, which is established and maintained by aggressive behavior. Birds establish the pecking order at a young age while still in a brood flock. The larger and more aggressive turkeys hold the higher positions. After it’s established, the pecking order remains fairly stable for long periods, but dominance relationships within a socially organized flock change when a member dies, when a ranking turkey becomes weak or any time a lower-ranked turkey defeats a ranking turkey in battle.
When a flock breaks up, so does the pecking order, and if a new flock is formed, as occurs when gobblers regroup in early summer, a new pecking order is established.
Behaviors associated with dominance and combat have complex patterns. If a gobbler wishes to start a fight with another turkey in his flock, he walks closely in front of the object of discontent as a challenge. If the challenged turkey wants to duel, the fight is on. If the challenged turkey doesn’t want to fight, he will turn away so the aggressor is no longer in front of him — like turning the other cheek. If that is enough to satisfy the aggressor, the group will return to a state of relative peace, but if the aggressor persists, the affronted turkey might try to avoid combat by sitting on the ground. If the aggressor is still not satisfied, he will peck the head of the affronted turkey, which will eventually make that bird stand and turn its back. That behavior can continue for some time, but at some point, the offended turkey will finally run away. When he runs, the aggressor might chase him through the woods to underscore the victory.
I’ve observed cases in which a gobbler that had been defeated and expelled from a small male group in spring remained in the same home range but did not attempt to rejoin the male group. In other cases, I have witnessed periods of accommodation when an expelled gobbler was allowed to associate at peace with the group from which he had been expelled.
Rules of Flocking Behavior
Segregation by sex and age class is the rule in the social code of the wild turkey. During most of the year, turkeys have four kinds of socially organized flocks: adult gobblers, jake-only flocks, adult hens without young and adult hens with offspring. There are also mating associations in spring and solitary hens during the nesting season.
The turkey’s rules of flocking have purpose. When a hen with a young brood detects a predator, she squats and hides with the brood and, if necessary, attacks the predator. That is a dangerous tactic, but by that time, the hen has endured the dangers of laying, incubating and roosting on the ground with her flightless brood, and has enough at stake to justify taking risks.
Conversely, a broodless hen has nothing at stake when confronted by a predator except her safety. When faced with a threat, the logical choice is for her is to flee. If a broodless hen were to associate with a brood and do that, her behavior would divulge the location of the hiding brood and increase the danger to the brood and brood hen. On the other hand, if she hid with the brood and did not flee, that would increase her own risk of death without benefit to herself or the brood. So, a broodless hen’s association with a brood would be a no-win situation. Nature has resolved that issue by separating brood flocks from family flocks to lessen the risk to both.
Gobblers flock separately from other turkeys for much the same reasons: They have different defensive behaviors that serve them well and would not serve other social units.
Why do jakes leave family flocks in late fall and associate only with their own kind? I think jakes outgrow their mothers and become aggressive, noisy and reckless, which makes them increasingly less compatible with their brood hen. Their reckless behavior endangers themselves and also the hens, and by early winter, jakes split from brood flocks, probably by mutual consent. Leaving the surveillance of the brood hen probably reduces the survival rate of young males, but that doesn’t matter because jakes are expendable compared to young hens. Every hen can reproduce if she lives to be 1 year old, but only a few dominant adult gobblers will father broods, and only a few jakes need to survive each year to fill that need. That is reason enough for nature to let the jakes go it alone and not jeopardize the survival of young hens.
In early spring, larger all-male flocks break up. Some gobblers go it alone, but most spend the spring mating season in small alliances of two to four gobblers. There is strict social order within these alliances. Only the dominant gobbler does the copulating, and the others assist him in attracting hens, strutting and fighting off competitors.
Some biologists have speculated that male mating alliances are composed of closely related male turkeys — mostly brothers. Because brothers carry many of the same genes, any male in such an alliance that mated and fathered poults would be passing on many of the genes of his brothers. So by cooperating with their close kin, the allies would be helping to pass on the family genes, so to speak, even if they didn’t mate. Although that seems plausible, the kinship hypothesis of gobbler flocking behavior is unproven.
Jakes usually attempt to associate with older gobblers in spring. Henry Davis called them apprentice gobblers. Adult gobblers reject jakes at first but finally become so preoccupied with courtship that jakes are able to hang around the fringes of the mating aggregations without actually joining the party.
The next time you see a group of turkeys, try to discern its composition. You’ll likely find it falls into an easily recognizable category, which is all part of nature’s plan.