Everything to Know About Wild Turkeys

Wild turkey
Jim Cumming / Getty Images

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a powerful game bird, most recognizable for its popular role in Thanksgiving day feasts across the United States. Endemic to North America, wild turkeys have since been introduced to different areas worldwide and are often domesticated as poultry on farms due to their popularity as food and for hunting. These unique birds are even more entertaining in the wild though, and the sight of them often surprises many birders who are only familiar with turkeys after they are roasted and served on a dining table.

Wild Turkeys vs. Domestic Turkeys

Domestic turkeys are the same genetic species as wild turkeys but are raised under controlled conditions on farms in order to provide meat. There are many types of turkey farms, from large-scale commercial operations to smaller free-range or organic facilities. Domestic turkeys often have plumage that is distinctly different from their wild cousins—the most common variation is a pure white bird with red wattles, but they can also come in shades of tan, brown, pied, and black. Depending on the stock used to breed the turkeys and how they are raised, they can also look nearly indistinguishable from their wild turkey counterparts.

Where to Spot a Turkey

Unlike many bird species, wild turkeys do not migrate and can be found year-round, though they are often nomadic while searching for the most abundant food sources. During the colder winter months, wild turkeys are likely to visit bird feeders that have spilled seed or ground-feeding areas where cracked corn is available. Additionally, you are most likely to spot wild turkeys in the following locations:

In a Flock

Wild Turkey Flock
Wild Turkey Flock Shelly Prevost/Flickr/CC by 2.0

Wild turkeys are gregarious birds that travel in small or medium-sized flocks, usually with one dominant male and up to 20 or more hens that make up its harem. After chicks have hatched, the young birds will remain with the family flock until they reach their adult size and begin to seek out mates and territories of their own, which typically happens around six months of age. Several hens might bring their broods back to join in the same flock during the winter, creating larger groupings of 150 or more birds. In the backyard, a flock of turkeys—also called a rafter or gobble—can quickly empty multiple bird feeders and is not always a welcome sight for backyard birders.

In Flight

Wild Turkey in Flight
Wild Turkey in Flight Stephen Fischer/Flickr/Used With Permission

Because wild turkeys are large, relatively heavy birds, it is often assumed that they either cannot fly or are not good fliers if they do take to the air. In fact, wild turkeys are very powerful fliers (they often take flight when startled or threatened) and can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour, thanks to their broad, rounded wing. Domestic turkeys, on the other hand, are often bred specifically to reach heavier weights with higher proportions of breast muscles for meat and therefore cannot easily fly at all.

In Trees

Wild Turkey in a Tree
Wild Turkey in a Tree The Mighty Tim Inconnu/Flickr/CC by 2.0

The most common place to spot wild turkeys is while they're feeding on the ground, but they actually roost in trees and will often find shelter in one as darkness falls each evening. The coverage a large tree provides helps to protect the flock from any nocturnal predators (like bears, foxes, and coyotes) but it can also be startling to birders who don’t expect to see such large birds perched overhead. Occasionally, wild turkeys will also forage in trees, plucking fruits or nuts directly from the branches—though more often than not, they will choose to scratch at the ground to find the food that has already fallen instead.

Types of Wild Turkeys

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    Tom

    Wild Turkey Tom
    Wild Turkey Tom Tom/Flickr/CC by 2.0

    Male turkeys, also called toms, are large, round birds with powerful muscles and colorful plumage. They are most easily recognizable by their tail fans, the “beard” of thin feathers on their chest, and their bright facial wattles (including the distinctive snood). Their plumage is eye-catching and attractive, often showcasing many different colors, subtle patterns, and a touch of iridescence. Turkey's are polygamous birds, and a larger, more well-developed tom has a better chance of attracting multiple females to join his harem. Courtship displays include strutting and showing off his tail while drooping his wings to appear larger and more intimidating. The familiar “gobble” call often associated with turkeys is also part of a tom’s courtship behavior.

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    Hen

    Wild Turkey Hen
    Wild Turkey Hen Ruthanne Reid/Flickr/Used With Permission

    A female turkey is called a hen, and it is quite different from its flamboyant male counterpart. Female turkeys do the majority of incubation and caring for young chicks, and their plumage is much more camouflaged to help provide them with better security while on the nest or tending youngsters. Female turkeys also lack a large tail and are much less iridescent than males. While female wild turkeys do have wattles, a female's wattles are smaller and less colorful than a male’s. Most hens also lack the chest beard, but about 10 to 15 percent of older female wild turkeys will develop this feature. In general, hens are also much smaller in overall size than toms.

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    Poult

    Wild Turkey Poult
    Wild Turkey Poult Ravenelle/Flickr/CC by 2.0

    A young turkey is called a poult, and these precocial chicks can leave the nest and begin foraging for themselves within a day or two of hatching. Like many young birds, their plumage has a lot of fluffy down to provide insulation and is heavily camouflaged in buff and brown shades to protect them from predators. While all young turkeys can be called poults or chicks, as they get slightly older but are not yet independent, they may be called a jake (for male birds) or a jenny (for female birds).