Georgia Turkey Found Dead Changed My View On Corn Feeders

On The Shoulders Of Giants With Andrew Curtis.

Andrew Curtis | March 1, 2024

Blogger Andrew Curtis discovered this Georgia turkey as it was dying with what is believed to be the avian pox virus.

Turkeys sure do have a tough time. It’s a wonder that they can survive at all in the wild, with the ongoing habitat destruction, the seemingly endless predation, Mother Nature’s unpredictable hazards and conservation-oblivious humans. But then, there is more that we may not necessarily think much about in our native turkey flocks. For me, natural disease cases have been low down on my turkey-problem radar, until I recently encountered one on my Berrien County property.

On Feb. 18, I was running my dog on leash when she suddenly skidded to a stop with her hair bristled. It took my mind a few seconds to process that before me sat a tom turkey in broad daylight, apparently asleep. After letting my dog, while still on the leash, ease up to the turkey, I witnessed the turkey lift his head and try to look around. To my dismay, the longbeard appeared blinded, but I could not make out details of his obvious facial issue.

Frantically, the turkey took off running and managed to struggle into the air where he attempted to land in a small pine tree. After trying unsuccessfully to balance on a bending limb, the turkey glided down but crashed into a thicket about 50 yards away.

I took my dog back to the yard and then returned to look for the injured turkey. Sneaking along my pond dam where I had last seen the bird, I heard rustling in the briars and then an obvious gasping sound. Sadly, I watched one of our Berrien County longbeards dying just a month and a half before hunting season… shattering my chance of hearing that bird’s early morning gobble echo through the Alapaha River bottom.

What I saw was like nothing I have ever experienced seeing in a wild turkey. The tom’s neck, head, and snood were covered in large, warty lesions. The eyelids were also severely affected, preventing the turkey from opening his eyes. I discovered that there were no other external symptoms besides significant breast muscle atrophy.

After taking pictures, I sent them to a poultry veterinarian friend who identified the disease as likely avian pox, a virus that is NOT contagious to humans, thankfully. However, this virus can be highly contagious to other birds, even between different species of birds. She explained that since the turkey was gasping and dying of asphyxiation, he probably had the wet (or diphtheritic) form of the disease which affects the throat and lungs, too.

Emily Rushton, the Georgia WRD turkey biologist, said, “Avian pox is one of the more common diagnoses in dead turkeys. It is spread by mosquitos or by direct contact. Disease severity can vary, with some birds showing no symptoms, while others have severe lesions affecting the head, legs, mouth and/or respiratory tract.”

Symptoms can spontaneously resolve after six to 12 weeks if the affected birds survive that long.

So, how worried should we be about this disease?

“While it is a common cause of mortality in turkeys, it does not typically cause widespread outbreaks and is not a cause for population declines,” said Rushton. “If landowners want to prevent avian pox or limit risk for disease transmission in general, the absolute best thing they can do is refrain from using supplemental feeders. Supplemental feeding greatly increases direct contact with individual turkeys which increases the risk of disease transmission. Additionally, for most of the year, Georgia’s weather provides excellent conditions for growing pathogens on corn, including Aspergillus fungus, which produces toxins that can be lethal to turkeys.”

Point taken! I certainly will not be using any corn feeders this year.

If you find a sick or dead turkey, WRD is very interested in collecting and submitting it to UGA for necropsy and testing. Call your regional WRD Game Management Office to ensure the carcass is collected and transported properly to UGA. The results are readily shared with the submitter.

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