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When One Hen Lays Eggs in the Clutch of Another Hen

THROWBACK TT July 27th, 2021 | This Turkey Tuesday is about nest parasitism in wild turkeys, which is simply when one hen lays eggs in the clutch of another hen. Although not widely discussed, some hens parasitize nests – like the super large clutch of 26 eggs in this nest of a Rio Grande hen. Nest parasitism has been linked to kinship and sociality in birds, and the bottom line is, parasitic hens gain fitness advantages while the host female may not. We’ve recently determined that across sites from Texas to South Carolina, at least 6% of all nests are parasitized, and an earlier study showed that >20% of wild turkey nests were parasitized. We have ongoing genetics work on many turkey populations which should provide cool information on how prevalent parasitism is across the landscape. Even more interesting (at least to me), we’ve found that of the hens that visit other hen’s nests, 93% of them spent time with the host hen while she was in her laying sequence – in other words, the parasite had intel on the movements of the host hen while she was laying her clutch, which allowed her to nail down where the host nest was located and aided in parasitizing it. And, we’ve seen that most parasitic hens also laid and incubated their own nests – these hens appear to be trying to have their cake and eat it too! Let another hen incubate and hopefully hatch some of your eggs, but also try to hatch your own as well. It is believed that high predation risk promotes nest parasitism – this would certainly seem plausible with turkeys who suffer high nest loss across their range. Regardless, the take home is that nesting behaviors of wild turkeys, like many other behaviors, are always more complex than they seem – as a friend often says, strange things happen in the woods!

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