Be Your Own Birder

Discover the Wild Turkey

We’re all thankful for birds, and in November every year, even non-birders are thankful for the wild turkey (or at least its domestic cousins). But other than their big tails, flocking behavior, and tastiness, what do you know about the wild turkey?

Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey – Photo by Betsy Matsubara

Wild Turkey Fun Facts

  • The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is in the bird family Phasianidae, the same family as the Indian peafowl, pheasants, quail, grouse, junglefowl, and other familiar game birds, many of which are well known for their amazing tail displays.
  • An adult wild turkey has approximately 5,500-6,000 or more feathers, but only 18 make up the male’s distinctive fan-like tail.
  • While wild turkeys are almost always seen on the ground, they are powerful fliers and can fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Because even wild birds can be heavy, however, they often prefer to run when threatened, rather than take flight.
  • Though they don’t do it often, wild turkeys can swim when needed, and will spread their tails and tuck their wings in as they paddle with their feet.
  • These are emotional birds, and the bare skin of the head and neck can change from white to pink to blue to red depending on the bird’s mood and agitation. The fleshy bobble hanging over the bill, called the snood, can also change size and color with mood.
  • A wild turkey’s gobble can be heard up to one mile away and is how a tom communicates with his harem or lets other males know that he has claimed the territory. In addition to gobbling, purrs, chucks, cackles, yelps, and whines are all part of a turkey’s vocabulary.
  • Though they are native to North America from Mexico to Canada, wild turkeys have been introduced and have established populations in southeastern Australia and New Zealand, as well as on several islands in the Hawaii archipelago.
  • Wild turkeys are omnivores with a widely varied diet, including berries, nuts, insects, grain, seeds, lizards, snakes, cacti, grass, snails, slugs, amphibians, and many other foods. This allows them to stay in the same territory year-round, eating whatever foods are available in different seasons.
  • Turkey feces can be used to determine the age and sex of birds. Males leave J-shaped stool, while females leave spiral-shaped stool. The diameter of the feces helps determine the age, as older birds leave larger stool.
  • Turkeys have been raised as food for millennia; fossil records show ancient Aztecs raising turkeys as early as 200 BC. Today, more than 45 million turkeys will be cooked in the United States for Thanksgiving Day.
Wild Turkey - Photo by Larry Lamsa
Wild Turkey – Photo by Larry Lamsa

Adding the Wild Turkey to Your Life List

Within their range, these birds can be easy to see because of their large size and their larger flocks. They are often seen in open woodlands, pastures, orchards, and agricultural fields, typically foraging in the morning or evening, or birders might hear their gobbles from a long distance away. Wild turkeys can even be spotted in cemeteries, near airports, or in suburban areas. They can be wary birds, however, and it is best to visit their habitat slowly and cautiously to avoid startling them. Late fall and winter can be the easiest seasons to see wild turkeys as they gather in larger flocks and may need to forage for longer periods to find sufficient food.

Learn More About the Wild Turkey

Gobble up these extra resources to learn more about wild turkeys…

Wild Turkey Chick
Wild Turkey Chick – Photo by Michael Woodruff

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