There could be no doubt about what bird had to be featured this week as we celebrate the first Thanksgiving of Be Your Own Birder. All over the country and the world where American-style Thanksgiving celebrations may be held, turkeys are guests of honor on dinner tables (a dubious honor to the turkey, certainly), but how much do you know about these wild birds?
Name: Wild Turkey
Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
Scientific Family: Phasianidae (Pheasants, Partridges, Turkeys and Grouse)
Habitat: Wild turkeys are right at home in open woodlands and forests, particularly where nut trees such as oak, hickory and beech are abundant. Because these birds are adaptable to different food sources, they are also easily found in agricultural fields, weedy meadows adjacent to woodlands and even suburban areas. Shrubby areas with plentiful berry bushes are also ideal for wild turkeys.
Range: These popular game birds are found throughout the United States and southern edge of Canada, as well as into central Mexico. They are absent, however, from the driest, most barren parts of the southwestern states and the Baja peninsula, as well as very dense, humid forests of the Pacific northwest and extreme southern tip of Florida. Wild turkeys don’t migrate, but will wander throughout their range to find the best food sources at different times of year.
Wild turkeys are unmistakable for several reasons. These birds are huge and plump, much larger than any similar game birds in their range. Males are black with an iridescent green-bronze sheen on their bodies, a hairy “beard” sprouting from their chest, and a broad fan-like tail. Their dark wings are barred with white, and their heads and necks have fleshy wattles that can vary from white to pink to red to pale blue depending on the bird’s mood and agitation. Females look similar but lack the broad tail and show less extensive wattles.
These birds are most often seen on the ground, foraging in flocks, but it is a misconception that they can’t fly – wild turkeys are actually powerful fliers and roost in trees. They’re also more intelligent than their reputation would allow, and will sample a wide variety of foods to find the best resources for their needs.
I’ve been fortunate to see wild turkeys a number of times and in many different locations. Closest to home, they have a regular territory at a small local airport, where they’re often foraging beyond the ends of the runways just outside the woodlands they call home. I’ve seen males strutting their stuff to impress totally un-impressed females, and I’ve seen family flocks poking about with little fluffy chicks that have a lot of growing to do before they match the breadth of their parents. I never have seen them in my yard, and that inexperience allows me to say they’d be welcome, but I know many birders who have had the intimate company of wild turkeys who’d rather the birds were not guests quite so often, thanks to their large flocks, voracious appetites and bold behavior. But I’d be happy to try – and I’d be thankful for the visit!
Learn more wild turkey trivia just in time for Thanksgiving!