One of the largest game birds, the wild turkey is found only in North America but its domesticated cousins are familiar around the world. So popular for hunting that this member of the Phasianidae bird family was once close to extinction, careful management has wild turkey populations thriving today and has even expanded the bird's range beyond its historical boundaries. Gobble up more wild turkey facts with this profile and you'll be stuffed with knowledge about these fun and familiar birds!
- Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
- Common Name: Wild Turkey, Turkey, Gobbler
- Lifespan: 3-5 years
- Size: 36-48 inches
- Weight: 8-25 pounds
- Wingspan: 55 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
Wild Turkey Identification
With its plump round body, long legs, long neck, and fan-like tail, the wild turkey is a distinct and instantly recognizable bird, and even non-birders can easily identify these familiar fowl. Knowing the key field marks for the species, however, can help birders learn more about wild turkeys and how to identify them properly.
The wild turkey's bill is short and thick, and generally pale grayish with a red skin flap (the snood) on top. Males have a bare head and the neck is covered with thick red wattles. The body is overall grayish-black with an iridescent gleam in good light, with white barring on the primary feathers. The distinctive tail fan is dark brown and black barred with buff terminal bands on each tail feather, and males have a long tuft of dark breast feathers.
Females are smaller with less iridescent coloring, a smaller tail, and smaller neck wattles. Females also typically lack the breast “beard” feathers, though short beards are present on some older hens. For both genders, the legs and feet are pale and the eyes are dark. Depending on the bird's mood and emotions, the bare skin on the head and snood can change color from pale white or pink to brighter red or light blue.
Juvenile birds are similar to adults but with less refined markings, a scruffier appearance, and an overall smaller size.
The most distinctive call of the wild turkey is the fast “gobble-gobble-gobble” males use during the spring breeding season. Other calls by both males and females include “cluck” and “yelp” sounds to indicate movement or nest warnings.
Wild Turkey vs. Ocellated Turkey
The wild turkey looks very similar to the ocellated turkey, but the wild turkey's overall colors are much more muted earth tones than the brighter, almost fluorescent hues of the ocellated turkey. The bare skin of the head and neck is especially darker, as the ocellated turkey's skin is a much brighter blue with yellow or yellow-orange nodule-shaped wattles. The ocellated turkey also has a much narrower, more restrictive range, and is only found in the Yucatan Peninsula and the very northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The wild turkey is a more northern bird in Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico, and the two turkeys' ranges do not overlap.
Wild Turkey Habitat and Distribution
Wild turkeys are fairly common throughout very southern Canada, the continental United States, and central Mexico but are rare in the high Rocky Mountains and desert areas as well as extreme northern Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. Overall, these birds are more common in the eastern parts of their range. Turkeys prefer open woodland and rural habitats with nut-bearing trees and shrubs.
Wild turkeys do not migrate but may be nomadic, particularly in winter, depending on local food availability. When food is abundant and the northern winter is mild, the birds may not wander far from their breeding sites at all.
Wild turkeys are gregarious birds and live in medium to large flocks with one dominant male “tom” and up to 20 or more female “hens.” The birds have superb hearing and eyesight and are powerful fliers. They forage almost continuously on the ground but roost in trees at night. During the breeding season, males strut and display their broad tail feathers for courtship rituals and use similar behavior throughout the year to show dominance or aggression, especially when multiple males are nearby.
Diet and Feeding
Wild turkeys eat a wide variety of foods, including insects, frogs, lizards, fruit, grain, seeds, and nuts. These omnivorous birds may scratch through debris on the ground to uncover food as well as pluck food directly off different plants.
Male wild turkeys are polygamous and will mate with several hens in the same year. Hens incubate one brood of 4-17 eggs per year in a ground nest in tall grass or under concealing shrubs or bushes for approximately 25-31 days.
Eggs and Young
Wild turkey eggs are a creamy white or buff color, and may be splotched with brown or red dots at one end. After hatching, females lead the fledgling birds to food and the young birds quickly learn to forage for themselves. Among young birds, females are called jennies and males are called jakes.
Wild Turkey Conservation
Wild turkeys are not considered threatened or endangered, and regulated hunting seasons have helped ensure stable populations in many areas. In some communities, wild turkeys are considered a nuisance because large flocks can develop and the birds may damage property as they forage or roost. In these situations, authorities may seek to relocate or cull the birds as needed. In their wild habitats, preserving suitable food sources and roosting sites is essential to help wild turkeys thrive.
Tips for Backyard Birders
Wild turkeys are large game birds with little to fear from most predators. They will be attracted to rural areas with oak trees and scrub brush that can provide secure ground cover. Birders can offer cracked corn and other grain as supplemental food and may be able to attract nearby wild turkeys with artificial turkey calls. Backyard birders should note, however, that wild turkeys can be aggressive and have big appetites, and they are not always welcome in populated areas. Some states also have laws against feeding wild turkeys because such actions can complicate regulated hunting seasons and the birds may become a nuisance or even dangerous in urban or suburban areas.
How to Find This Bird
Wild turkeys can be easy to find within their range if birders visit open forested areas and woodland edges. Forests with nut-bearing trees are more likely to be home to wild turkeys, as are weedy prairies and meadows next to forest edges, and these birds may even be seen on the fringes of cemeteries, golf courses, and airports in the appropriate habitat. These large birds are unmistakable and often travel in medium or large flocks, giving birders superb opportunities to see them well.
Explore More Species in This Family
The Phasianidae bird family is home to more than 200 different birds, including not only wild turkeys but also different species of grouse, partridges, prairie-chickens, peafowl, pheasants, monals, and junglefowl. Close relatives of the wild turkey include:
Check out our other wild bird profile fact sheets to learn more about all your favorite birds!
Wild Turkey Overview. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
BirdLife International. Meleagris Gallopravo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Natural Resources, 2018. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22679525A132051953.en
Identifying Female and Male Turkeys in the Spring. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Wild Turkey Sounds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Wild Turkey Appearance. National Wild Turkey Federation.
Ocellated Turkey. American Bird Conservancy.
Wild Turkey Behavior. National Wild Turkey Federation.
Wild Turkey. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. 2016.
Howard, Laura. Phasianidae. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.