Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are smart birds that can adapt to the environment, work together in a flock, and are inquisitive creatures. Wild turkeys are also fast movers—flying up to 55 miles per hour in the air and running up to 25 miles per hour on land. While you may be able to recognize the bird by its fanned-out tail, bare heads, and gobbling call, there's so much more to these birds. Check out these wild turkey facts that might surprise you.
Wild Turkey Characteristics
|Common name||Wild turkey|
|Scientific name||Meleagris gallopavo|
|Height||2.5-3 ft. (males); 2 ft. (females)|
|Weight||5 to 20 pounds|
|Native area||North America|
Facts About Wild Turkeys
- There are approximately 5,500 feathers on an adult wild turkey, including 18 tail feathers that make up the male's distinct fan. Many of the feathers are iridescent, which gives the turkey its characteristic sheen.
- Wild turkeys can fly and have a top flight speed of about 55 miles per hour. On the other hand, domestic birds are bred to be heavier, so they provide more meat and, therefore, cannot fly, though they can still run.
- Wild turkeys have very powerful legs and can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.
- The average lifespan of a wild turkey is three to five years, and the oldest known wild turkey lived about 13 years old. Domestic birds bred for food only live a few months until they are the appropriate size for commercial slaughter, though breeders may keep breeding pairs for several years.
- In the wild, turkeys weigh from five to 20 pounds. Domestic turkeys are specially bred to be heavier and could weigh twice as much as their wild cousins, depending on their age when harvested.
- Wild turkeys see in color and have excellent daytime vision, three times better than a human's eyesight, with a visual field of about 270 degrees. However, they have poor vision at night and generally become warier as it grows darker.
- Wild turkeys are omnivorous and will try many different foods. Most of their diet is grass and grain, but wild turkeys have a varied diet and will also eat insects, nuts, berries, and small reptiles. Domestic turkeys are typically fed specialized food pellets for balanced nutrition and optimum growth but may also enjoy treats like vegetable scraps or leafy greens.
- These birds mainly exhibit a foraging behavior—early morning and evening—opportunistically eating food found by walking on the ground. Turkeys scratch in leaf litter to expose food items and occasionally go up shrubs or trees to eat berries. They feed primarily in the early morning and evening.
Wild Turkey Behavior
- A wild turkey's gobble can be heard up to one mile away and is a primary means for a tom to communicate with his harem of hens. The calls also warn other toms away from territory already claimed.
- During the winter months, hens and toms live in separate flocks. As spring arrives, males leave their winter flock and move to mating grounds to attract females.
- A male wild turkey may be by itself if it is courting. Male turkeys will mate with as many female turkeys as possible.
- The birds' heads can be red, pink, white, or blue. The wild turkey's bald head and fleshy facial wattles can change color with excitement or emotion in seconds. The flap of skin that hangs down over a turkey's bill is called a snood and can change color, size, and shape based on mood and activities.
- Just hatched wild turkeys are precocial, which means they are born with feathers and can fend for themselves quickly. Young turkeys leave the nest within 24 hours to forage for food with their mothers. Male parent turkeys have very little to do with raising chicks.
- Wild turkeys are social animals. Turkeys make sounds to communicate, such as calling in their young to mating calls. Sounds include gobble, yelp, cluck, chump, hum, purr, putt, cackle, and kee-kee.
- Adult male turkeys are called toms, and females are called hens. Wild turkey babies are called poults, juvenile males are jakes, and juvenile females are jennies. A group of turkeys is called a rafter or a flock.
- Due to overhunting and deforestation that eliminated wild turkeys’ habitats, these birds were nearly extinct in the 1930s. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys, and the population of these birds is increasing in many areas. Their range is spread throughout North America, from Canada to Mexico.
- Wild turkeys have five distinct subspecies: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, and Goulds. Subtle plumage differences and different ranges distinguish these birds. In some classifications, a sixth subspecies, the south Mexican wild turkey, is also recognized. Another turkey, the ocellated turkey, is an entirely separate species and looks quite different from more familiar wild turkeys, with bolder, brighter colors and different wattles.
- Because it is a native bird with a proud demeanor and protective instincts, the wild turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the national bird. He considered the bald eagle less honorable because it can be a scavenger and will rob other birds and animals for prey.
- The wild turkey is one of only two birds native to North America that has been regularly domesticated, and domestic wild turkeys are raised all over the world. The other North American bird often bred for food is the Muscovy duck.
- Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states without extensive, naturally occurring wild turkey populations. However, You can still find some escaped birds or domestically bred turkeys in those states. Wild turkeys were first domesticated in Mexico and then exported to Europe. European settlers brought domesticated turkeys back to the New World with them as colonists but also hunted the wild birds they found.
- The first unofficial presidential pardons were granted to domestic turkeys in 1947. Since then, every U.S. president has “pardoned” two birds (a presidential turkey and a vice-presidential turkey) before Thanksgiving. The pardoned birds live out their days on different farms and are often put on display temporarily for the American public to greet.
- June is National Turkey Lovers’ Month and promotes eating turkey at times other than major holidays. Turkey meat is low in fat and high in protein, making it healthier than many different types of meat. Because turkeys can be so large, they are also more affordable than other meats.
- The average American eats 18 pounds of turkey yearly, and more turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving than on Christmas and Easter combined.
- Turkeys are the most hunted of all birds in North America. The wild turkey is the official game bird of Alabama, Massachusetts, and South Carolina.
Where to Spot Turkeys in the Wild
Turkeys live in every state in the continguous U.S. Their favorite habitat is open forests that have cleared areas. In the South, they are found among the trees, mainly stands of pines, magnolias, beeches, and oaks. Turkeys need to drink daily and will frequent watering holes, especially in hot weather.
Missouri, Georgia, and Pennsylvania are among the states that have the highest wild turkey hunting harvests. To see wild turkeys in their natural habitat, where they are safe from hunting, you can find them in the following refuges around the U.S.: