North American Wild Turkey
Excerpted from: Turkey Facts
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.
Wild turkeys are native to parts of Wisconsin, in an area roughly south of a line from Prairie du Chien to
Green Bay. They served as an important food source for settlers and Native Americans alike. But, by the
year 1881, wild turkeys disappeared from Wisconsin. Settlement and an increase in farming and logging
led to the clearing of the state's oak forests. The raising of domestic birds resulted in the spread of
diseases to wild turkeys. Unregulated hunting also took its toll. The last turkey sighting in Wisconsin
was near Darlington in Lafayette County in 1881.
In 1976, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources made a trade with the state of Missouri in order
to bring wild turkeys back to Wisconsin. We gave them ruffed grouse; they gave us wild turkeys. The
first 29 wild Missouri turkeys were released in Vernon County. The turkeys thrived in their new home
and began to breed and increase their population. As the number of turkeys increased, the DNR began
to trap them from areas with lots of turkeys and move them to other good turkey habitat areas. Over
3,000 turkeys were trapped and relocated in 49 counties. Turkeys moved into other counties on their own.
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.
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
||1 to 1½ years
||Males: 13-23 lbs
Hens: 7-11 lbs
||Height: 48 inches
Length: 46 inches
||Dark, iridescent plumage
Bare head and neck
Male heads are either red
blue or white (seasonal)
||Bobcats, owls, eagle
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
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.
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.
Turkeys are highly sensitive to touch in areas such as the beak and feet. This sensitivity is useful for obtaining
and maneuvering food.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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