The Turkey of the Smokies 

Spring is just around the corner when life in the Smokies will soon be waking up.

Imagine being there: You venture into Great Smoky Mountains National Park before sunrise to visit Cades Cove. After driving down the single-lane road, you pull off to the side to study the landscape. Fog stretches across the valley, covering the meadows in morning dew. The sun peeks its way through the trees and over the mountains.

While bundled up in a warm fleece layer and a puffy jacket, you study the terrain searching for the best angle to capture the mystical landscape. Then, echoing in the distance, you hear a gobble. Spring is in the air and the call of a strutting tom breaks the morning silence.  

Trevor LaClair

Being the most-visited national park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is rightly known for its large, rolling mountains and the vast autumn colors that sprinkle the landscape.

However, after a cold winter, it’s good to escape to the mountains to enjoy the wonders of the spring awakening. Flowers bloom within the forests and along the bluffs. Black bears begin feasting and songbirds start to sing. Snowmelt floods the streams and splashes over mossy cobbles. As days turn into months, a wave of foliage climbs up the mountains, covering them in a green blanket.  

Trevor LaClair

Spring is also a great time to photograph the wild turkey. With a global breeding population of about 7.8 million, turkeys are one of the most common game bird species. However, that wasn’t always the case. During the nineteenth century, there was a drastic decline in population due to overhunting and habitat loss. During this period, two subspecies of wild turkeys went extinct. However, in the 1940’s the future was about to lighten up for the turkey population. Conservation efforts were put into play to capture wild individuals and transplant them to suitable habitats. These transplants began to thrive and revive the turkey population.  As a result, there are now six subspecies of wild turkey in North America: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam, Gould, and Ocellated. The Smoky Mountains are home to the Eastern wild turkey which has the strongest gobbles and longest beard of any other subspecies.  

Trevor LaClair

Even though the turkey is capable of flying, its main mode of transportation is walking. They’ll often travel up to two miles a day, depending on their habitat. However, they do have an annual home range of about 370 to 1,360 acres. When threatened, the females are more likely to fly while the males are more commonly seen running from threats. Being a turkey can be a dangerous occupation. They have a lot of predators such as coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles, and people. Finding a successful roost can mean the difference between life and death for the birds. When the sun sets, the turkeys will fly up into a tree to spend the night. They will find the largest tree that is available and land on the lowest limb. From there, they will hop from branch to branch to a higher roost. This is a great way for them to avoid ground predators. A flock of turkeys may often use the same roost night after night, but will occasionally scout new perches to help them stay safe. Most of the time, you will find turkeys roosting in flocks, but there are occasionally individuals who roosted alone.     

So what makes spring a great time to photograph the Eastern turkey? Breeding season! The increasing daylight hours from late February into June triggers a hormonal response in turkeys. This causes the males to perform courtship behaviors where they will fan their tails and lower their wings while making hums and chump sounds. When you see a tom puffed up like a balloon that’s when you want to pull out your camera to snap a few photos. A turkey’s vocalization consists of 28 distinct calls, but the one they are most commonly known for is their gobble. This is a way for the toms to attract hens and warn off competing males.  

Trevor LaClair

A single male will often breed with multiple females. Once the breeding season ends, the toms will form all-male flocks while the hens will begin nesting. Turkeys are ground nesters, building nests in dead leaves at the base of a tree, under a brush pile, or in a thick shrub. The location plays an important role in the success of the nest. Otherwise, nest predators such as foxes, skunks, and snakes will devour the eggs. After finding a suitable spot well hidden from potential threats, the hen scratches a shallow depression that is about one inch deep, 8 to 11 inches wide, and about 9 to 13 inches long. She then lays between ten to twelve eggs during a two-week period. It takes a lot of work being a lone mother sitting on a nest. The hen will incubate the eggs for 28 days, only leaving the nest to find food. Once hatched, the hen will often travel with other females to maximize the survival of the poults (the baby turkeys.) After about three weeks, the poults are able to safely roost in trees. By the time winter approaches, the poults are fully grown.  

Ben Blankenship

If you love turkeys and want to get some great photos of a strutting tom, then a spring trip into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is perfect for you. In addition, you may even get lucky and snap a few photos of a leucistic turkey. That is a bird with a genetic condition causing the pigment of its features to be white. A beautiful and rewarding site to see in the park. Aside from turkeys, a trip to the national park can reward you with all kinds of photography opportunities such as beautiful sunsets, rolling mountains, lush forests, and so much more. Just remember, it can still be wet and cold in the mountains, so pack those layers and head to the Smokies!   


Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains (standard)
April 11th – 16th, 2022
2 Spots Left 

Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains (hiker)
April 17th – 22nd, 2022
4 Spots Left


Trevor LaClair

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trevor LaClair is an explorer who is passionate about wildlife. He has spent many years working with and around animals of all kinds, both in captivity and in the wild. The animals he enjoys the most are megafauna and dangerous animals. After growing up in Missouri, Trevor ventured across the country guiding in different places, including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where he spent his free time tracking grizzlies and watching wolves.

After receiving his Bachelors in Fisheries and Wildlife from the University of Missouri, Trevor obtained a Masters in Biology from Miami University.  During the past few years, Trevor has had epic adventures exploring places such as Komodo National Park, Serengeti, and the Great Barrier Reef. He loves playing outside and going on epic adventures. His mission is to inspire people around the world to appreciate nature and conserve this planet’s natural wonders. Through entertainment and education, Trevor uses the power of media to bring viewers on global adventures and up close to amazing animals. You can follow Trevor LaClair on his adventures by checking out his website trekkingwithtrevor.com.

 

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