The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is an instantly recognizable and powerful game bird. Endemic to North America, these birds have been introduced in different areas worldwide and are often domesticated as poultry on farms, and they are popular as food and for hunting. These unique birds are even more entertaining in the field, however, and they often surprise many birders who are only familiar with turkeys after they are roasted and served on a dining table.
01 of 09
Male turkeys, also called toms, are large, round birds with powerful muscles and colorful plumage. They are most easily recognizable by their tail fans, “beard” of thin feathers on the chest, and bright facial wattles, including the distinctive snood. Their plumage is equally attractive with its different shades of color and iridescence. These 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 he droops his wings to appear larger and more intimidating. The familiar “gobble” call is also part of a tom’s courtship behavior.Continue to 2 of 9 below.
02 of 09
A female turkey is called a hen, and she is quite different from her flamboyant male counterpart in this dimorphic species. Females do the majority of incubation and caring for young chicks, and their plumage is much more camouflaged to help provide better security while on the nest or tending youngsters. Female turkeys lack the 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 10-15 percent of older female wild turkeys will develop this feature. In general, hens are also much smaller than toms.Continue to 3 of 9 below.
03 of 09
A young turkey is called a poult, and these precocial chicks can leave the nest and begin foraging for themselves within a day of hatching. Their plumage has a lot of fluffy down to provide insulation, and it 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, a young male can be called a jake and a young female can be called a jenny.Continue to 4 of 9 below.
04 of 09
Flock of Turkeys
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 his 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. Several hens might bring their broods to join in the same flock during the winter, creating flocks with 150 or more birds. In the backyard, a flock of turkeys - also called a rafter or gobble - can quickly empty multiple feeders and is not always a welcome sight for backyard birders.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Wild Turkey in Flight
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 and can reach speeds up to 55 miles per hour in flight with their broad, rounded wings, and they will often take flight when startled or threatened. Domestic turkeys, on the other hand, are often bred specifically to reach heavier weights with higher proportions of breast muscles for meat, and they cannot easily fly at all.Continue to 6 of 9 below.
06 of 09
Turkey in a Tree
The most common place to see wild turkeys is feeding on the ground, but they actually roost in trees and will fly into a suitable tree as darkness settles each evening. This helps protect the flock from nocturnal predators but can be startling to birders who don’t expect to see such large birds above their heads. Occasionally, wild turkeys will also forage in trees, plucking fruits or nuts directly from branches, though more often they will scratch at the ground to find the food that has already fallen.Continue to 7 of 9 below.
07 of 09
Winter Wild Turkey
Wild turkeys do not migrate and can be found throughout their range year-round, though they are often nomadic while searching for the most abundant food sources. In winter, wild turkeys are more likely to visit bird feeders that have spilled seed or ground-feeding areas where cracked corn is available. Their large, deep tracks can startle backyard birders who might not be expecting such large, hungry birds at their feeders.Continue to 8 of 9 below.
08 of 09
Domestic turkeys are the same genetic species as wild turkeys but are raised under controlled conditions on farms 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. While the most common variation is a pure white bird with red wattles, domestic turkeys 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 wild turkeys.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
While ocellated turkeys are a distinctly different species than their wild turkey cousins, these birds are similar enough to be occasionally confused with other wild turkeys. Ocellated turkeys, however, are much more brightly colored than wild turkeys, their facial wattles are much rounder and their tails have distinctive eyespots. Their behavior and diet are similar to wild turkeys, but their range is much more restricted. Ocellated turkeys are only found on the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico, extending slightly into northern Guatemala and northeastern Belize. They are found in tropical forests, woodlands, and dense jungles, as well as in shrubby marshes or overgrown agricultural fields, and prefer more densely vegetated areas.