Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) live in the woods in parts of North America and are the largest game birds found in the United States. There are six subspecies of wild turkeys and they each have subtle differences in their coloration, habitat, and behavior. The six subspecies of wild turkeys are:
- Eastern Wild Turkey
- Osceola Wild Turkey (or Florida Wild Turkey)
- Rio Grande Wild Turkey
- Merriam’s Wild Turkey
- and Gould.
Adult male wild turkeys are known as gobblers or jakes. They are much larger than the females, known as hens, and normally weigh between 16-30 pounds and range 39-49 inches in length. Adult hens generally weigh approximately 6-12 pounds and measure 30-37 inches in length. The wingspan of a wild turkey can be 49-57 inches wide.
Some people think that wild turkeys are flightless birds. They can actually fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour and can reach ground speeds up to 25 miles per hour. Adult wild turkeys have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs and a black body. Males have a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles on the throat and neck. When a male turkey is excited, its head turns blue; when ready to fight, it turns red. (The color of a gobbler’s head and neck can have a variation of shades of red, white, and blue.) Each foot has three toes, and males have a spur behind each of their lower legs.
Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail, glossy bronze wings and feathers with areas of red, purple, green, and copper. Female turkey colors are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Turkeys generally have 5000 to 6000 feathers. Males typically have a “beard“, which is a tuft of coarse hair growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 9 inches in length. It may also be possible to see a hen with a beard, but it is shorter and thinner than that of the male.
Turkeys have great hearing, even though they do not have external ears. They can see colors, and have excellent eyesight with a wide field of vision. The eyesight of a wild turkey is about 10 times better than the human eyesight. This explains why it’s so hard to sneak up on a turkey without them seeing or hearing you. That’s why many hunters hunt from a blind. You do not have to worry about a wild turkey catching your scent since they have a poor sense of smell.
The gobble is a call that only males make. Female turkeys make a clicking noise. Males, or toms, gobble when they hear loud noises and when they settle in for the night. One can hear a turkey gobbling up to a mile away on a quiet day.The wild turkey is an omnivore and their main objective during the day (when not in mating season) is looking for food like acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries. They usually cover many miles in a day in their search for food and can eat many pounds of insects and seeds along the way.
Another thing that is necessary for wild turkey survival is to have access to a permanent water supply within roughly a ¼ mile area. Nesting and roosting will normally occur within 100 yards of this permanent water supply. Wild turkeys are forest-dwelling birds that roost in trees at night, normally pine trees or large mature trees that can provide the most protection from predators and severe weather conditions. Their roost also serves as their refuge whenever they sense danger.
Wild turkeys will stay together as a flock until winter arrives. At that time, the gobblers tend to separate from the hens and jakes. When spring comes around, gobblers are looking to mate so the winter flocks break up and they go in search of hens. To get the attention of the hens, the gobblers will begin gobbling and strutting. To impress the hens, the toms will display their fabulous tail fans and drag their wings. As with most animals, the older and more dominant gobblers will do most of the breeding and can breed with many hens.
After the female turkey mates in the spring, she prepares a nest in an area that she feels will be safe from predators. Turkey nests can be located under a bush in the woods as well as the edge of woods, fields and roadsides. The hen can have up to 16 eggs that are tan and brown speckled. It takes approximately one month for the chicks to hatch. When the babies (known as poults) hatch they are unable to fly so the mother roosts on the ground with them until they are able to fly. This means for the first three weeks of the poults’ life, they are vulnerable to cold and rainy weather as well as predators. The mother will roost on the ground with her chicks until they are able to fly. The poults will stay with their mother for a year. Young turkeys tend to grow quickly and therefore need a diet that is high in protein, to support their rapid growth. Initially, their diet is mostly protein but soon they are looking for seeds, berries, acorns, corn, oats and wheat.
The wild turkey, due to its prowess and adaptability, has the potential to live for long as approximately thirteen years. But given the fact that wild turkey hunting is the second most popular hunting sport in America, they rarely are able to live that long. It is estimated by wildlife authorities that most never make it much beyond two years old.
It isn’t always easy to tell the age of a wild turkey. Hunters will try to age a gobbler by looking at its beard. Generally, beards grow at a rate of 4″ to 5″ a year and they never stop growing. They also will usually get wider and thicker as the gobbler ages. There are many variables that can make aging a bird by the length of its beard a bit tricky. Once beards reach a length of 9″ to 10″, it begins to drag on the ground which will cause it to wear down at the tip. When the bird feeds, the tip of the beard gets stepped on by the tom. If it is in the winter, the beard can drag across the ice causing more breakage. There are instances in which mature gobblers can lose most or all of the beard due to various causes. Most people have no idea what “that thing” that hangs over the turkey’s beak or what that is under their chin. Here you can find the correct terms for those things and others.
Breeding: Any time between the end of February and the end of May is considered mating season. The gobbler’s main objective during this time is finding a hen for breeding.
Calling: A technique used by hunters, by using various types of calls, to imitate sounds made by the wild turkey. The purpose is to engage the turkey by exchanging calls so the turkey will come closer to you to examine the situation.
Call-shy: This describes the wild turkey that has heard hunters calling so much that they are able to distinguish between a man-made call and a genuine turkey calling. They will then ignore the call instead of responding to it.
Caruncle: The brightly colored growths on the throat region. It turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.
Decoys: These artificial birds, used to attract turkeys into firing range, come in several styles from photo-image silhouettes to foldouts and inflatables. A typical decoy setup includes a pair of hens and a single jake.
Drag marks: These are marks left by gobbler’s wings while they are strutting. During mating season, the gobblers will go through a series of displays to attract the hens. In doing so, they fan out their tails and drag their wings on the ground, which is called strutting. As they strut, their wing feathers leave marks on the ground.Dusting: This is a method used by wild turkeys to clean their feathers. Turkeys lie on their breasts in mounds of dry sand, dirt, etc., and kick dust and dirt onto their backs. The dust filters through their feathers, removing mites, lice and other parasites.