Turkey mites explained

Lone Star Tick
Wildlife officials have found that some “turkey mites” are actually the early developmental stages of local ticks, such as lone star ticks (pictured). Photo by NIAID/Wikimedia Commons

In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our January/February 2018 issue.

Q: What are turkey mites? — Mary Kennedy, Columbia, Missouri

A: Although some people swear that turkeys can introduce an infestation of nearly invisible mites to a yard or woodlot, there is no specific tick or mite that uses both turkeys and humans as hosts. Hunters and others who have ventured through brushy areas have long complained about developing intense itching, especially on ankles and legs. It’s said to be similar to chiggers — except worse — and was blamed on the mythical “turkey mite.” State wildlife officials who have requested samples of these “turkey mites” have found that they are actually the early developmental stages of local ticks. The lone star tick, found in much of the eastern United States, is a common culprit.

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Several tick species in the U.S. have been expanding their ranges north and west in recent years; climate change is thought to be a major factor. Warm winters and earlier springs also likely improve survivorship and increase resident tick populations. Meanwhile, Wild Turkey numbers have also grown to the extent they are considered troublesome in some areas. Many reports of “turkey mites” predate the concurrent population surges, and I believe there is another explanation for why people associate turkeys and tick bites.

Research has found that tick populations are correlated with years of high acorn production. That’s because two main consumers of acorns, mice, and deer, are a couple of the most common hosts of ticks. Acorns are also a primary food source for turkeys. Periodically, abundant acorn crops result in people (particularly hunters) coming in contact with high concentrations of both ticks and turkeys, prompting a belief that turkeys are bringing a pest with them into an area.

Learn more about ticks and how to remove them from the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center.

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Julie Craves

Julie Craves

Julie Craves is an ecologist and the retired director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan. She answers readers’ questions about birds in her column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching. A tireless researcher and bird bander with a keen interest in the stopover ecology of migrant birds, she is also a personable writer with a gift for making everything she writes readable and entertaining. Her first article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching), “Forest Fire-tail,” a profile of the American Redstart, appeared in June 1994. Send a question to Julie. Read her blog at http://net-results.blogspot.com.

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