Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can be wild fun when you consider how unique and incredible these birds really 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 really know about them? These wild turkey facts might surprise you!
Trivia About Wild Turkeys
- Due to overhunting and deforestation that eliminated wild turkeys’ habitat, these birds were nearly extinct in the 1930s. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys and their range is spread throughout North America. (See the wild turkey range map to learn if turkeys live in your neighborhood!)
- 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 Gould’s. Subtle plumage differences and different ranges distinguish the 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 the more familiar wild turkeys.
- Wild turkeys have very powerful legs and can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. Their top speed in flight is 55 miles per hour. Domestic birds, on the other hand, are bred to be heavier so they provide more meat and therefore cannot fly.
- 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, berries and small reptiles. Domestic turkeys are typically fed specialized food pellets, but may also enjoy treats like vegetable scraps or leafy greens.
- The average lifespan of a wild turkey is 3-5 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.
- In the wild, turkeys range from 5-20 pounds. Domestic turkeys are specially bred to be heavier and could weigh twice as much as their wild cousins depending on their age when they are 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, not the bald eagle that is more of a scavenger and will rob other birds and animals for prey.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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-occuring wild turkey populations.
- 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.
- 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 can become more wary 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. The male 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 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 meats. Because turkeys can be so large, they are also more affordable than many other available 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, are the most hunted of all birds in North America.
Photo – Wild Turkey © Don McCullough