North American Wild Turkey

Excerpted from: Turkey Facts

North American Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo

It's the season . . .

The turkey is a very popular bird, especially around the holiday season. Before sitting down to enjoy that holiday meal, pay tribute to this splendid bird by discovering some of these fascinating turkey facts.

The wild turkey is the only type of poultry native to North America and is the ancestor of the domesticated turkey. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are 350,000 wild turkeys that live here.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are 350,000 wild turkeys that live here.

Although wild and domesticated turkeys are related, there are some differences between the two. While wild turkeys are capable of flight, domesticated turkeys cannot fly. Wild turkeys typically have dark colored feathers, while domesticated turkeys are commonly bred to have white feathers. Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have large breast muscles. The big breast muscles on these turkeys make mating too difficult, so they must be artificially inseminated.

Turkey Names

What do you call a turkey? The scientific name for the wild and modern domesticated turkey is Meleagris gallopavo. The common names used for the number or type of turkey changes depending on the age or sex of the animal. For example, male turkeys are called toms, female turkeys are called hens, young males are called jakes, baby turkeys are called poults, and a group of turkeys is called a flock.

North American Turkey
Meleagris gallopavo
Lifespan 1 to 1½ years
Weight Males: 13-23 lbs
Hens: 7-11 lbs
Average Size Height: 48 inches
Length: 46 inches
Color Dark, iridescent plumage
Bare head and neck
Male heads are either red
blue or white (seasonal)
Sexual Maturity 10 months
Hatching Period 25-31 days
Clutch Size 4-17 Egss
Adult Predators Bobcats, owls, eagle
and snakes

Turkey Appearance

Turkeys have some curious features that stand out upon first glance. One of the first things people notice about turkeys are the red, fleshy stretches of skin and bulbous growths located around the head and neck region. These structures are the:

  Caruncles: These are fleshy bumps on the head and neck of both male and female turkeys. Sexually mature males may have large carnuncles with bright colors which are attractive to females.

  Snood: Hanging over a turkey's beak is a long flap of flesh called the snood. During courtship, the snood enlarges and becomes red as it fills with blood in the male.

  Wattle: These are flaps of red skin that hang from the chin. Males with large wattles are more attractive to females.

Another prominent and noticeable feature of the turkey is its plumage. Voluminous feathers cover the breast, wings, back, body and tail of the bird. Wild turkeys can have over 5,000 feathers. During courtship, males will puff up their feathers in a display to attract females. Turkeys also have what is called a beard located in the chest area. Upon sight, the beard appears to be hair, but is actually a mass of thin feathers. Beards are most commonly seen in males but may occur much less commonly in females. Male turkeys also have sharp, spike-like projections on their legs called Spurs. Spurs are used for protection and defense of territory from other males.

Sensory Sytems

Vision

A turkey's eyes are located on opposite sides of its head. The position of the eyes allows the animal to see two objects at once, but limits its depth perception. Turkeys have a wide field of vision and by moving their neck, they can gain a 360-degree field of view.

Hearing

Turkeys do not have external ear structures such as tissue flaps or canals to assist with hearing. They have small holes in their head located behind the eyes. Turkeys have a keen sense of hearing and can pinpoint sounds from as far as a mile away.

Touch

Turkeys are highly sensitive to touch in areas such as the beak and feet. This sensitivity is useful for obtaining and maneuvering food.

Smell and Taste

Turkeys do not have a highly developed sense of smell. The region of the brain that controls olfaction is relatively small. Their sense of taste is believed to be underdeveloped as well. They have fewer taste buds than mammals and can detect salt, sweet, acid, and bitter tastes.

Diet

Male Wild Turkey Head

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.

Habitat

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.

Reproduction

Female wild turkey with poult Wild turkeys mate in the early spring. The male wild turkey gobbles to attract a female. He fans out his tail, struts around the female, and lowers his wings and drags the tips on the ground. The male's gobble is so loud it can often be heard a mile away! The male mates with more than one female.

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. The female lays 8-15 buff-colored eggs in shallow depression on the ground that is hidden by brush, grass, vines, or other vegetation. She incubates the eggs for 25-31 days.

The chicks or poults are covered with down at birth and leave the nest shortly after hatching. The chicks are precocial and feed themselves shortly after birth. The male poults stay with their mother through the fall. Female poults remain with their mother until the next spring.

Social Behavior

They Walk

Wild turkeys generally move a mile or two in one day depending on habitat and distance to food and water sources. The annual home range of wild turkeys varies from 370 to 1,360 acres and contains a mixture of trees and grass cover. Deep snow in the north and dry conditions in the west limit access to food and water and also set limits to the wild turkey's distribution across the United States.

They Talk

Just like humans, turkeys talk to communicate. Their vocabulary consists of 28 distinct calls. Each sound has a general meaning and can be used for different situations. Male turkeys are notorious for their iconic gobble, which unlike other calls, is given with a fixed intensity. Listen to all the sounds made by the wild turkey on our Wild Turkey Sounds page.

They Roost

Wild turkey roosting in a tree Roosting in trees in an important element in the life of a wild turkey. It is a life-saving technique because roosting in trees helps birds avoid ground predators. Poults begin roosting from about 14-28 days old, depending on the sub-species, location and temperature. Turkeys may use traditional roost sites night after night but they generally use different sites and move from tree to tree. Turkeys usually select the largest trees available and roost as high in them as they can comfortably perch. In fair weather, hardwood trees are favored, while hemlocks offer good protection from harsh elements.

They Fight for Dominance & Mate

During the fall and winter seasons, it's common for turkeys to be in the good company of their equals. You'll see groups of jakes, old and young hens and mature gobblers all sectioned out. The different flocks allow the birds to more easily determine dominance. In the spring, mating rituals begin.

They Dust, Sun and Preen

Wild turkeys dust, sun and preen from a young age, about 2-4 days old. Dusting is usually a flock activity. A dust bath is part of a bird's preening and plumage maintenance that keeps feathers in top condition. Turkeys will flap frantically in the dirt to spread dust over their entire body. Doing so keeps feathers from becoming greasy or matted. Sunning and preening often follow a dust bath as part of their extensive grooming regimen. Sunning birds recline on one side and extend the upward wing and leg to expose a large surface area to direct sunlight. Birds sun for several reasons: to obtain heat as a way of regulating their body temperature, maintain feather health, dislodge feather parasites and for relaxation. Preening is a common bird behavior to keep feathers in good shape. Birds preen to remove dust, dirt and parasites from their feathers. They also align each feather in the optimum position relative to adjacent feathers and body shape.

Further Reading:

 Beavers — Nature's Hydrologist, Part 1
 Beavers — Nature's Hydrologist, Part 2
 Garter Snakes — The Gardener's Friend
 Wisconsin Native Salamanders
 Goundhog or Woochuck: All The Facts
 Voles, Both The Good and The Bad