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Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo ORDER: GALLIFORMES FAMILY: PHASIANIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Most North American kids learn turkey identification early, by tracing outlines of their hands to make Thanksgiving cards. These big, spectacular birds are an increasingly common sight the rest of the year, too, as flocks stride around woods and clearings like miniature dinosaurs. Courting males puff themselves into feathery balls and fill the air with exuberant gobbling. The Wild Turkey’s popularity at the table led to a drastic decline in numbers, but they have recovered and now occur in every state except Alaska.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
43.3–45.3 in
110–115 cm
Wingspan
49.2–56.7 in
125–144 cm
Weight
88.2–381 oz
2500–10800 g
Relative Size
One of our largest and heaviest birds; smaller than a Trumpeter Swan; about twice the size (and four times as heavy) as a Ring-necked Pheasant.
Other Names
  • Dindon sauvage (French)
  • Gaujalote (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Wild Turkey and the Muscovy Duck are the only two domesticated birds native to the New World.
  • In the early 1500s, European explorers brought home and domesticated Wild Turkeys from Mexico. They quickly became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. Later, when English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them.
  • It’s possible to distinguish wandering barnyard turkeys from wild individuals: Domestic turkeys have white tail tips like the original Mexican subspecies, while Wild Turkeys in North America have chestnut-brown tips.
  • The English name of the bird may be a holdover from early shipping routes that passed through the country of Turkey on their way to delivering the birds to European markets.
  • Male Wild Turkeys provide no parental care. Newly hatched chicks follow the female, who feeds them for a few days until they learn to find food on their own. As the chicks grow, they band into groups composed of several hens and their broods. Winter groups sometimes exceed 200 turkeys.
  • As Wild Turkey numbers dwindled through the early twentieth century, people began to look for ways to reintroduce this valuable game bird. Initially they tried releasing farm turkeys into the wild but those birds didn’t survive. In the 1940s, people began catching wild birds and transporting them to other areas. Such transplantations allowed Wild Turkeys to spread to all of the lower 48 states (plus Hawaii) and parts of southern Canada.
  • Because of their large size, compact bones, and long-standing popularity as a dinner item, turkeys have a better known fossil record than most other birds. Turkey fossils have been unearthed across the southern United States and Mexico, some of them dating from more than 5 million years ago.
  • When they need to, Turkeys can swim by tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails, and kicking.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Wild Turkeys live year-round in open forests with interspersed clearings in 49 states (excluding Alaska), parts of Mexico, and parts of southern Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Turkeys in northeastern North America use mature oak-hickory forests and humid forests of red oak, beech, cherry, and white ash. In the Southeast, turkeys live in forests containing pine, magnolia, beech, live oak, pecan, American elm, cedar elm, cottonwood, hickory, bald cypress, tupelo, sweetgum, or water ash, with understories of sourwood, huckleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel, greenbrier, rose, wisteria, buttonbush, or Carolina willow. Southwestern birds are often found in open grassy savannah with small oak species. In Alberta, turkeys live between pinyon-juniper forest and ponderosa pine forest.

Food


Omnivore

Wild Turkeys eat plant matter that they forage for in flocks, mostly on the ground but sometimes climbing into shrubs or low trees for fruits. In fall, winter, and early spring they scratch the forest floor for acorns from red oak, white oak, chestnut oak, and black oak, along with American beech nuts, pecans, hickory nuts, wild black cherries, white ash seeds, and other seeds and berries. When deep snow covers the ground, they eat hemlock buds, evergreen ferns, spore-covered fronds of sensitive ferns, club mosses, and burdock. During the spring they may dig up plant bulbs if nuts are scarce. In late spring and summer, Wild Turkeys strip seeds from sedges and grasses, occasionally supplementing their plant diet with salamanders, snails, ground beetles, and other insects. Like most birds they swallow grit to help digest their food.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4–17 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.9–2.7 in
4.9–6.9 cm
Egg Width
1.6–1.9 in
4.1–4.7 cm
Incubation Period
25–31 days
Nestling Period
1 days
Egg Description
Pale yellowish tan, evenly marked with reddish brown or pinkish spots.
Condition at Hatching
Well-developed and covered with tawny, brown, pinkish, and gray down.
Nest Description

The female scratches a shallow depression in the soil, about 1 inch deep, 8–11 inches wide, and 9–13 inches long. Wild Turkeys use only the dead leaves or other plant materials already present at the nest site.

Nest Placement

Ground

Wild Turkeys nest on the ground in dead leaves at the bases of trees, under brush piles or thick shrubbery, or occasionally in open hayfields.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Wild Turkeys get around mostly by walking, though they can also run and fly—when threatened, females tend to fly while males tend to run. At sundown turkeys fly into the lower limbs of trees and move upward from limb to limb to a high roost spot. They usually roost in flocks, but sometimes individually. Courting males gobble to attract females and warn competing males. They display for females by strutting with their tails fanned, wings lowered, while making nonvocal hums and chump sounds. Males breed with multiple mates and form all-male flocks outside of the breeding season, leaving the chick-rearing to the females, The chicks travel in a family group with their mother, often combining with other family groups to form large flocks of young turkeys accompanied by two or more adult females. Each sex has an independent pecking order, with a stable female hierarchy and a constantly changing male hierarchy. Wild Turkeys are hunted by coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, Golden Eagles, Great Horned Owls, and people. Nest predators include raccoons, opossums, striped skunks, gray foxes, woodchucks, rat snakes, bull snakes, birds, and rodents.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Wild Turkeys are numerous and their populations have increased sharply since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 7.8 million with 89 percent occurring in the U.S., 10 percent in Mexico, and 2 percent in Canada. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Wild Turkeys regained and even expanded their range after drastic declines during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from hunting and habitat loss. One subspecies disappeared from New England in the mid-nineteenth century, surviving in small numbers in wilderness areas of the Gulf States, the Ozarks, and the Appalachian and Cumberland plateaus. Another subspecies disappeared from parts of Texas, while yet another declined precipitously in numbers throughout the Southwest. In the early twentieth century people tried unsuccessfully to use farm turkeys for restoring wild populations, but in the late 1940s they began to successfully transplant wild-caught turkeys into suitable habitat. No other game bird has responded so well to the efforts of game managers. The birds are popular among hunters; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 21 percent of all U.S. hunters (about 2.5 million people) pursue turkey, making it the second most-sought game after deer. Their expanding populations have made it possible for hunting seasons to be put in place in all 49 states in their range.

Credits

Range Map Help

Wild Turkey Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Backyard Tips

If you have a large yard near woods, you can attract Wild Turkeys by planting nut-bearing or berry trees. Some people attract turkeys by scattering birdseed or corn on their lawns; just beware that this can also attract unwanted visitors such as rodents.

Find This Bird

To find Wild Turkeys it helps to get up early in the morning, when flocks of these large birds are often out foraging in clearings, field edges, and roadsides. Keep an eye out as you drive along forest edges, particularly forests with nut-bearing trees such as oak and hickory, and you may even see turkeys from your car. In spring and summer, listen for gobbling males; the calls are loud, distinctive, and they carry great distances. You’ll usually find turkeys on the ground, but don’t be surprised if you run across a group of turkeys flying high into their treetop roosts at the end of the day.