Wild turkeys are a class of their own. Not to be compared with the not-so-bright, domesticated Thanksgiving turkey, our wild turkeys are intelligent, wary birds with intricate courtship rituals and close family structures. The Turkey is our largest game bird and can be found in most areas of the U.S.
The Wild Turkey used to be endangered. This native, North American bird reached endangered numbers of about 30,000 birds in the early 1900’s due to hunting and loss of habitat. But with conservation efforts the population is now estimated to be about 7 million and turkey hunting is allowed in many states. Did you know that the turkey is one of only two native North American birds to be domesticated? The other is the Muscovy Duck.
What are Wild Turkeys called? A young male turkey is called a jake and a young female turkey is called a jenny. Adults are called toms or gobblers and female adults are called hens. Toms average about 48 inches long and usually weigh between 18 to 25 pounds. The smaller female hens are about 36 inches long and weigh between 8 to 10 pounds.
What do Wild Turkeys eat? Turkeys are ground feeders and their diet consists of acorns, berries, plant matter, seeds and other tree seeds. And they will even eat amphibians, snakes and salamanders. They roost in trees at night, often over water as additional protection against nocturnal predators. Although they run more often than fly, Wild Turkeys are surprisingly strong and agile flyers. And they can be fast—a Wild Turkey can run at about 25 miles per hour and they’ve been clocked flying as fast as 55 miles per hour, although 35 miles per hour is typical.
Exactly what color is a Wild Turkey? At first sight, Wild Turkeys appear to be mostly brown, but a closer look reveals beautiful iridescent body feathers and white bars on their wings. Birds in the western portion of the country have white tips on their tail feathers, while the eastern birds have chestnut-colored tips. Our domestic turkeys descend from the western race. Explorers brought western turkeys from Mexico back to Europe where they were domesticated and raised for food. Later these birds were brought back to America by early English settlers and that’s why all domestic turkeys have white tail tips, although they can’t be seen on all-white birds.
Turkeys have featherless heads that are pink and blue. The male’s neck is reddish and his head and neck can change color with his mood and during courtship, during which they spread their tail feathers in a fan and drag their wings along the ground. Turkeys have many vocalizations and the “gobble” call that the male uses while courting and attracting females can be heard up to a mile away!
Turkeys nest on the ground. After the poults or chicks leave the nest, the mother will feed them for a few days as they follow her around and they very soon learn to forage on their own. In summer, the hens and poults will travel in groups of about 30 birds with bachelor groups of toms traveling nearby. In winter, the flocks will band together in larger groups, sometimes with up to 200 birds foraging together.
Here’s a myth you may have heard, Wild Turkeys almost became our national bird. Although the turkey is a fascinating bird, there’s no evidence that Benjamin Franklin championed it as our national emblem. He disagreed with the choice of the Bald Eagle. That he proposed the Wild Turkey instead…is a myth. Happy Birding!