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.
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.