Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are a large gallinaceous game birds related to chickens, quails, ptarmigans, pheasants and partridges.
Wild turkeys are indigenous to North America as east of the Rockies. They range as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Mexico. Wild turkeys have been introduced west of the Rocky Mountains, especially in parts of California.
There are six subspecies of wild turkey: the Eastern wild turkey (M. g. silvestris), the Rio Grande wild turkey (M. g. intermedia), Merriam’s wild turkey (M. g. merriami), the Florida, or Osceola, wild turkey (M. g. osceola), Gould’s wild turkey (M. g. mexicana) and the South Mexican wild turkey (M. g. gallopavo).
The different subspecies differ slightly in size, appearance and habitat. Eastern wild turkeys are one of the larger subspecies. They occupy the eastern seaboard as far west as Texas and North Dakota, with the exception of the Florida Peninsula. Eastern wild turkeys are the subspecies that the Puritan settlers would have encountered in Massachusetts.
Rio Grande wild turkeys are found mainly in the central plains states and in the southwest. Merriam’s wild turkeys range from west Texas in the south to North Dakota. Florida wild turkeys occupy the Florida Peninsula. Gould’s wild turkeys are found in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.
The South Mexican wild turkey is the only subspecies that is not found in the United States. This subspecies was domesticated by pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, giving rise to the domestic turkey. Spanish conquerors brought the domestic turkeys back to Europe where new breeds were developed.
Wild turkeys are omnivorous, feeding on plants, fruits and nuts as well as small invertebrates such as insects and snails. Turkeys sometimes also feed on larger animals such as salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards and crabs.
Wild turkeys live in flocks Male wild turkeys are polygamous, mating with as many female birds as possible. Hens nest on the ground, preferably in areas with dense vegetation. Despite turkey’s size they can fly at speeds of up 55 mph over short distances.
Wild Turkeys and Humans:
Wild turkeys were one of the few native North American animals to be domesticated by humans. In the United States turkeys have become part of the national identity because of their identification with early English colonization. Turkey has become part of Thanksgiving Holiday traditions in both the U.S. and Canada. Today wild turkeys are popular game animals for hunters.