Turkey mites explained

Lone Star Tick

In the “Since You Asked” section of each issue of BirdWatching, editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and their behavior. Here’s 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 almost invisible mite infestation to a yard or woodlot, there is no specific tick or mite that uses both turkeys and humans as a hosts. Hunters and others who have ventured into brushy areas have long complained of developing intense itching, especially in the ankles and legs. It is said to be similar to chiggers – except worse – and has been blamed on the mythical “turkey mite”. State wildlife officials who requested samples of these “turkey mites” discovered that they were actually the early stages of development of local ticks. The lone star tick, found across much of the eastern United States, is a common culprit.

Several species of ticks in the United States have expanded their range north and west in recent years; climate change is considered a major factor. Warm winters and earlier springs also likely improve survival and increase resident tick populations. Meanwhile, the number of wild turkeys has also increased as they are considered a nuisance in some areas. Many reports of “turkey mites” predate simultaneous population surges, and I believe there is another explanation why people associate turkeys with tick bites.

Research has shown that tick populations are correlated with years of high acorn production. Indeed, two primary consumers of acorns, mice and deer, are among the most common hosts of ticks. Acorns are also a primary food source for turkeys. Periodically, heavy harvests of acorns cause people (especially hunters) to come into contact with high concentrations of ticks and turkeys, leading to the belief that the turkeys are bringing a pest with them to 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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