The Wild turkey is an upland ground bird native to North America, one of two extant species of turkey, and the heaviest member of the diverse Galliformes (a group of game birds which includes grouse, pheasants, and partridges). It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which was originally derived from a southern Mexican subspecies of wild turkey.
Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name from the domesticated variety being imported to Britain in ships coming from the Western Asian via Spain. The British at the time therefore associated the wild turkey with the country Turkey and the name prevails.
Read about Wild Turkey distribution, description, and many more interesting facts related to it with Pritish Kumar Halder.
Wild turkeys are found in North America, occurring in southern Canada, the United States, and Central Mexico.
They prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards, and seasonal marshes.
Habits and Lifestyle
Wild turkeys are non-migratory. They are social birds being active during the day. They have very good eyesight, but their vision is very poor at night and they will not see a predator until it is too late. At twilight most turkeys will head for the trees and roost well off the ground, up to 16 meters: it is safer to sleep there in numbers than to risk being a victim to predators who hunt by night.
By day, Wild turkeys spend their time foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees. They often feed in cow pastures, sometimes visit back yard bird feeders, and favor croplands after harvest to scavenge seeds on the ground. They often gather in large numbers in small areas because of their ability to forage for different types of food. Early morning and late afternoon are their desired times for eating. Wild turkeys communicate using many vocalizations: “gobbles”, “clucks”, “putts”, “purrs”, “yelps”, “cutts”, “whines”, “cackles”, and “kee-kees”.
In early spring, males older than 1-year-old (sometimes called gobblers or toms) and, occasionally to a lesser extent, males younger than 1-year-old (sometimes called jakes) gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Males also emit a low-pitched “drumming” sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest. In addition, they produce a sound known as the “spit” which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack. Females (hens) “yelp” to let gobblers know their location. Gobblers often yelp in the manner of females, and hens can gobble, though they rarely do so. Immature males often yelp.
Diet and Nutrition
Wild turkeys are omnivorous birds. They prefer eating acorns, nuts, and other hard masts of various trees, including hazel, chestnut, hickory.
And pinyon pine as well as various seeds, berries such as juniper and bearberry, roots, and insects. Turkeys also occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles such as lizards and small snakes. They also eat a wide variety of grasses.
Wild turkeys are polygynous and males mate with as many hens as they can. Males display for females by puffing out their feathers, spreading out their tails, and dragging their wings. This behavior is most commonly referred to as strutting. They use gobbling, drumming/booming, and spitting as signs of social dominance, and to attract females. Courtship begins during the months of March and April, which is when turkeys are still flocked together in winter areas.
After mating, females search for nest sites. Nests are shallow dirt depressions engulfed with woody vegetation. Hens lay a clutch of 10-14 eggs, usually one per day. The eggs are incubated for at least 28 days. The poults (chicks) are precocial and leave the nest in about 12-24 hours of hatching. They start to fly in 3-4 weeks but usually stay with their mother for up to 4 months.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the range and numbers of Wild turkeys had plummeted due to hunting and loss of habitat. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they were found from Canada to Mexico in the millions. Europeans and their successors knew nothing about the life cycle of these birds and ecology itself as science would come too late, not even in its infancy until the end of the 19th century whereas heavy hunting began in the 17th century.
Deforestation destroyed trees turkeys need to roost in. Destruction of subtypes of environment like prairie grassland in the Midwest, canebrakes in the Southeast, and pine in the desert highlands made them easy prey for predators as there was nowhere to hide or lay eggs. At present Wild turkeys continue to face a number of threats; these include development, overgrazing by livestock, habitat loss, and illegal poaching.
According to Partners in Flight resource, the total breeding population size of the Wild turkey is 6,900,000 birds. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.
Fun Facts for Kids
- Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. The males are substantially larger than the females, and their feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. In contrast to the majority of other birds, they are colonized by bacteria of unknown function. Females have feathers that are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes; in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. Wild turkeys have 5000 to 6000 feathers.
- When male Wild turkeys are excited, a fleshy flap on their bill expands, and this, the wattles and the bare skin of the head and neck all become engorged with blood, almost concealing their eyes and bill. The long fleshy object over a males’ beak is called a snood.
- Despite their weight, Wild turkeys are agile, fast fliers. In the ideal habitat of open woodland or wooded grasslands, they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than 400 m (a quarter mile).
- Because Wild turkeys don’t migrate, in snowier parts of their habitat like the Northeast, Rockies, much of Canada, and the Midwest, it is very important for these birds to learn to select large conifer trees where they can fly onto the branches and shelter from blizzards.
- When approached by potential predators, WIld turkeys and their chicks usually run away rather than fly away from potential predators, though they may also fly short distances if pressed.
- Occasionally, if cornered, adult WIld turkeys may try to fight off predators and large males can be especially aggressive in self-defense. When fighting off predators, turkeys may kick with their legs, using the spurs on their back of the legs as a weapon, bite with their beak and ram with their relatively large bodies, and may be able to deter predators up to the size of mid-sized mammals.
- Sometimes Wild turkeys may behave aggressively towards humans, especially in areas where natural habitats are scarce. Males occasionally may attack even parked cars and reflective surfaces thinking they see another turkey and must defend their territory. Usually, a car engine and moving the car is enough to scare it off.
- The Wild turkey, throughout its range, plays a significant role in the cultures of many Native American tribes all over North America. Outside of the Thanksgiving feast, it is a favorite meal in eastern tribes. The feathers of turkeys were also often used in the rituals and headgear of many tribes. Many leaders, such as Catawba chiefs, traditionally wore turkey feather headdresses.
- The Navajo people of Northeastern Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah call the WIld turkey Tązhii and relate the bird to the corn and seeds which The Turkey in Navajo folklore brought from the Third Navajo World. It is one of the Navajos’ sacred birds, with the Navajo people using the feathers and parts in multiple traditional ceremonies.