Fun Facts and Trivia About Wild Turkeys

fun facts about wild turkeys illustration

The Spruce / Emilie Dunphy

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can be wild fun when you consider how unique and incredible these birds are. While most birders and non-birders alike can easily recognize the distinctive plumage, large tails, bare heads, and gobbling call of these game birds, how much do you actually know about them? These wild turkey facts might surprise you!

Trivia About Wild Turkeys

  • Wild turkeys can fly, and they have a top speed in flight of about 55 miles per hour. Domestic birds, on the other hand, are bred to be heavier so they provide more meat and therefore cannot fly, though they can still run.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • There are five distinct subspecies of wild turkeys: 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 a completely separate species and looks quite different from more familiar wild turkeys, with bolder, brighter colors and different wattles.
  • Wild turkeys have very powerful legs and can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.
  • These birds 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.
  • The average lifespan of a wild turkey is three to five years, and the oldest known wild turkey lived to be at least 13 years old. Domestic birds bred for food only live a few months until they are the appropriate size for commercial slaughter, though breeding pairs may be kept several years.
  • In the wild, turkeys range 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.
  • 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.
  • Adult male turkeys are called toms, and females are called hens. Very young birds are poults, while juvenile males are jakes, and juvenile females are jennies. A group of turkeys is called a rafter or a flock.
  • 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 a territory that has already been claimed.
  • 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. Some escaped birds or domestically bred turkeys can still be found in those states, however.
  • The wild turkey’s bald head and fleshy facial wattles can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion. The birds’ heads can be red, pink, white, or blue. The flap of skin that hangs down over a turkey's bill is called a snood and can also change color, size, and shape based on mood and activities.
  • Wild turkeys see in color and have excellent daytime vision that is three times better than a human’s eyesight and covers 270 degrees. They have poor vision at night, however, and generally become warier as it grows darker.
  • 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 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 other 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 every year, and more turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving than on Christmas and Easter combined.
  • The wild turkey is the official game bird of Alabama, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. Though they may not be designated as official game birds in other states, wild turkeys are widely hunted. In fact, turkeys are the most hunted of all birds in North America.