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The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is native to North America and is the heaviest member of the Galliformes. It is one of two species of turkey, the other being the Ocellated Turkey, found in Central America.

Adult male Wild Turkeys have a large, featherless, reddish head; a red throat in males; long reddish-yellow to greyish-green legs; and a black body. The head has fleshy growths called caruncles; in excited turkeys, a fleshy flap on the bill expands, becoming engorged with blood. Males have red wattles on the throat and neck. Each foot has three toes, and males have rear spurs on their lower legs.

Turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. As with many other species of the Galliformes, turkeys exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes; in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. The primary wing feathers have white bars.Turkeys have 5,000 to 6,000 feathers. Tail feathers have the same length in adults, different lengths in juveniles. Males typically have a "beard" consisting of modified feathers that show out from the breast. Beards average 9 inches (230 mm) in length. In some populations, 10 to 20 percent of females have a beard, usually shorter and thinner than that of the male. The adult male normally weighs from 5 to 11 kg (11-24 lbs) and measures 100–125 cm (39–49 in). The adult female is typically much smaller at 3 to 5.4 kg (6.6-12 lbs) and are 76 to 95 cm (30–37 in) long. The wingspan ranges from 1.25 to 1.44 m (49–57 in). The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, was 38 lb (17.2 kg).

Flight and calls

In flight.
Wild Turkeys are surprisingly agile fliers and cunning, unlike their domestic counterparts. Turkeys are very cautious birds and will fly or run at the first sign of danger. Their ideal habitat is an open woodland or savanna, where they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than a quarter mile (400 m). Turkeys have many vocalizations: "gobbles," "clucks," "putts," "purrs," "yelps," "cutts," "whines," "cackles," and "kee-kees." In early spring, male turkeys, also called gobblers or toms, gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Males also emit a low-pitched drumming sound. Hens "yelp" to let gobblers know their location. Gobblers often yelp in the manner of females, and hens can gobble, though they rarely do so. Immature males, called jakes, yelp often.


Wild Turkeys are omnivorous, foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees to feed. They prefer eating hard mast such as acorns, nuts, and various trees, including hazel, chestnut, hickory, and pinyon pine as well as various seeds, berries such as juniper and bearberry, roots and insects. Turkeys also occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles such as snakes. Chicks have been observed eating insects, berries, and seeds. Wild Turkeys often feed in cow pastures. They sometimes visit backyard bird feeders to search for seed on the ground. Turkeys are also known to eat a wide variety of grasses.

Turkey populations can reach large numbers in small areas because of their ability to forage for different types of food. Early morning and late afternoon are the desired times for eating.

Social structure and mating habits

Female with chicks
Males are polygamous, so they form territories that may have as many as 5 hens within them. Male Wild Turkeys display for females by puffing out their feathers, spreading out their tails and dragging their wings. This behavior is most commonly referred to as strutting. Their heads and necks are colored brilliantly with red, blue and white. The color can change with the turkey's mood, with a solid white head and neck being the most excited. They also use their gobble noises and make scrapes on the ground for territorial purposes. Courtship begins during the months of March and April, which is when turkeys are still flocked together in winter areas.

Males are often seen courting in pairs with both inflating their wattles and spreading tail feathers. Only the dominant male would strut and drum on the ground. The average dominant male that courted as part of a pair fathered six more eggs than males that courted alone. Genetic analysis of pairs of males courting together show that they are close relatives with half of their genetic material being identical. The theory behind the team-courtship is that the less dominant male would have a greater chance of passing along shared genetic material than he would if he was courting alone.

When mating is finished, females search for nest sites. Nests are shallow dirt depressions engulfed with woody vegetation. Hens lay a clutch of 10-14 eggs, usually one per day. The eggs are incubated for at least 28 days. The chicks are precocial and nidifugous, leaving the nest in about 12–24 hours.

Predators of eggs and nestlings include Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, Striped Skunks, Gray foxes, raptor, Groundhogs, other rodents, spotted skunks, rat snake, Gopher Snakes, and pinesnakes. Predators of both adults and young include Coyotes, Bobcats, Cougars, Golden Eagles and (with the exception of males) Great Horned Owls and red foxes. Humans are now the leading predator of adult turkeys.

The range and numbers of the Wild Turkey had decreased at the beginning of the 20th century due to hunting and loss of habitat. Game managers estimate that the entire populations of wild turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 in the early 1900s. Game officials made efforts to protect and encourage the breeding of the surviving wild population. As wild turkey numbers rebounded, hunting was legalized in 49 U.S. states (excluding Alaskamarker). In 1973 the total U.S. population was estimated to be 1.3 million, and current estimates place the entire wild turkey population at 7 million individuals. In recent years, "trap and transfer" projects have reintroduced Wild Turkeys to several provinces of Canada as well.


There are subtle difference in the coloration of the different sub-species of Wild Turkeys. The six subspecies are:

M. g. silvestris in northern Florida

Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)

This was the turkey species first encountered in the wild by the Puritans. Range covers the entire eastern half of the United States; extending also into Southeastern Manitobamarker, Ontariomarker, Quebecmarker, and the Maritime Provinces in Canada. They number from 5.1 to 5.3 million birds. They were first named forest turkey in 1817, and can grow up to tall. The upper tail coverts are tipped with chestnut brown. The Eastern Wild Turkey is heavily hunted in the Eastern USA and is the most hunted Wild Turkey subspecies.

Osceola or Florida (M. g. osceola)

Found only on the Floridamarker peninsula. They number from 80,000 to 100,000 birds. This bird is named for the famous Seminole Chief Osceola, and was first described in 1980. It is smaller and darker than the Eastern Turkey. The wing feathers are very dark with smaller amounts of the white barring seen on other sub-species. Their overall body feathers are iridescence green-purple color.

M. g. intermedia has relatively long legs

Rio Grande (M. g. intermedia)

Ranges through Texasmarker to Oklahomamarker, Kansasmarker, New Mexicomarker, Coloradomarker, Oregonmarker, and central and western Californiamarker, as well as parts of a few northeastern states. Rio Grande Turkeys were also introduced to Hawai imarker in the late 1950s. Population estimates for this subspecies range from 1,022,700 to 1,025,700. This sub-species is native to the central plain states. They were first described in 1879, and have relatively long legs. Their body feathers often have a green-coppery sheen to them. The tips of the tail and lower back feathers are a buff-very light tan color. Its habitats are brush areas next to streams, rivers or mesquite, pine and scrub oak forests. Rio Grande Turkeys are gregarious.

Merriam's (M. g. merriami)

Ranges through the Rocky Mountains and the neighboring prairies of Wyomingmarker, Montanamarker and South Dakotamarker as well as much of the high mesa country of New Mexicomarker. They number from 334,460 to 344,460 birds. Merriam's Turkeys live in Ponderosa Pine and mountainous regions. It was named in 1900 in honor of Clinton Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. The tail and lower back feathers have white tips. They have purple and bronze reflections.

Gould's Wild Turkey

Gould's (M. g. mexicana)

Native from central to northern Mexicomarker and the southern-most parts of Arizonamarker and New Mexicomarker. Heavily protected and regulated. First described in 1856. They exist in small numbers in the U.S. but are abundant in Northwestern portions of Mexico. A small population has been established in southern Arizona. Gould's are the largest of the five sub-species. They have longer legs, larger feet, and longer tail feathers. The main color of the body feathers are copper and greenish-gold.

South Mexican (M. g. gallopavo)

The nominate subspecies, and one of the few that is not found in the United States or Canada. The Aztecs domesticated the southern Mexicanmarker sub-species, M. g. mexicana, giving rise to the domesticated turkey which is a popular main dish for the Thanksgiving holiday, held in November in the United States and October in Canada. The pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts brought farmed turkeys with them from Englandmarker, descendants of the original Mexican domesticated turkeys introduced into Europe by the Spanish, not realising that they occurred wild in America.

Benjamin Franklin and the US national bird

The idea that Benjamin Franklin preferred the Turkey as the national bird of the United Statesmarker comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache on January 26, 1784 criticizing the choice of the Bald Eagle as the national bird and suggesting that a Turkey would have made a better alternative.

This letter to Franklin's daughter was written after Congress spent six years choosing the eagle as the emblem of the newly formed country. Franklin's disapproval with the choice of the Bald Eagle appears evident but may have been ironical, it is not apparent that he ever officially advocated for the turkey.

See also


  1. National Wild Turkey Federation: Wild Turkey Facts.
  2. C. Michael Hogan. 2008. Wild turkey: Meleagris gallopavo,, ed. N. Stromberg
  5. "Benjamin Franklin to Sarah Bache, January 26, 1784".Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

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