The bold and majestic wild turkey is native to North America. There are five subspecies of this native bird separated by their geographic range; the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and Osceola (Florida). The Eastern is the most common wild turkey, ranging across the entire eastern half of the United States. Hunted to near extinction by the 1930’s, wild turkeys are once again thriving in North America due to conservation and reintroduction programs. Due to introduction programs flocks can now be found in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand in addition to North America.
The wild turkey looks very similar to its domesticated cousin, the broad breasted bronze. Significantly smaller than the bronze, weighing only 5.5 to 18.8 pounds, the wild turkey displays an array of between 5,000 and 6,000 black, bronze, and white body feathers in patterns called feather tracts. The male is much more colorful than the female showing an iridescence of red, gold, green and copper on both his body and large fanned tail. The wild turkey has a body length of approximately 3.5 feet and a wingspan of over 4 feet. Both sexes have strong legs with spurs, but the male’s spur develops to about two inches. Males also develop bristly looking beards made of dark filaments in the center of their chests. The heads and upper parts of the neck are featherless and take on a blue hue. This bluish coloration may become more pronounced when the turkey is distressed. The featherless areas of the neck are also covered with small, red bumps on the skin. Females remain smaller than males and are drab in color allowing them to camouflage themselves within their environment when nesting or sitting eggs.
Behavior and Diet
Unlike most domestic turkeys which are flightless, the sleek build of the wild turkey allows it to fly and roost in trees. Wild turkeys can run at speeds of 18 to 25 mph and fly at speeds of up to 55 mph. Turkeys have excellent vision in the day but don’t see well at night. For this reason, they are diurnal. The male has a distinct gobble that can be used for communication and can be heard for up to one mile. Wild turkeys are social birds that live in flocks. In winter the flocks are normally divided by sex. They are omnivores that forage on the ground eating seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, insects, and small reptiles. They prefer open areas for feeding and mating but retreat to the forest for roosting and protection from predators.
Mating and Life Cycle
During the typical mating season of February to April, wild turkeys partake in a ritual of courtship. After mating, females search for suitable nesting locations, generally depressions in the dirt sheltered by vegetation. She will lay one egg per day for 10 to 12 days and incubate them for a period of 28 days. Young turkeys, or poults, will leave the nest to forage for food between 12 and 24 hours after hatching. There are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys in existence today with a life expectancy of three to four years.