Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

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Wild turkey male calling
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Wild turkey fact file

Wild turkey description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderGalliformes
FamilyPhasianidae
GenusMeleagris (1)

The wild relative of one of only two domesticated birds to have originated in North America (2) (3), the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of the largest and most distinctive members of the Galliformes (a group of game birds which includes grouse, pheasants and partridges) (3). Its hefty size, characteristic plumage and social behaviour are particularly admired in the United States, and, as a result, the wild turkey has long been a popular symbol of American wildlife (4).

The wild turkey has long, powerful legs, a long neck, and a large, fan-shaped tail (2) (5). The tip of the tail is usually chestnut-brown or white, depending on the subspecies (2) (5) (6). Generally, the wild turkey is dark brownish-grey to blackish, with an iridescent sheen to the feathers (3) (5) (7). The iridescence varies from copper, bronze and gold to green or red (8). The wing and tail feathers have alternating dark and light bands (3), and the wings are rounded, with large quill-like feathers (5) (8). The head and neck are usually featherless (2) (3) (5) (6), and are covered a series of raised bumps, called ‘caruncles’, which appear more prominent on the male (8). The long bill is curved slightly downwards (2) (5)

The male wild turkey, also called a ‘gobbler’ or a ‘tom’, has black tips to the feathers, often making it appear almost metallic black (2) (5) (8). The head and neck are usually varying shades of blue, red or white, and are adorned with fleshy growths, called wattles. The male wild turkey also has spurs on the legs, and a coarse group of bristles on the chest, forming a ‘beard’ (2) (3) (5).

In contrast, the female wild turkey, or ‘hen’, is much duller than the male, being brownish, with lighter tan to chestnut-brown feathers on the breast, mid-back and wing-coverts (8). The tips of the female’s feathers are often buff, brown, grey, rusty or white (2) (3) (5), and the head is usually blue-grey, sometimes covered with small, sparse brown feathers (3). The hen does not usually have a ‘beard’ (3) (5).

Several subspecies of wild turkey are recognised across North America, each differing slightly in size and in the colour of the plumage (4) (5).

Also known as
Turkey.
Size
Length: 110 - 115 cm (2)
Wingspan: 125 - 144 cm (2)
Weight
2.5 - 10.8 kg (2)
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Wild turkey biology

The wild turkey typically forages on the ground in small flocks, or will climb or fly into low shrubs or trees in search of fruits (5). Foraging occurs throughout the day, although the wild turkey is usually most active first thing in the morning and just before sunset (4). This species generally searches for food by scratching on the floor of the forest or field in which it is foraging, using its feet to turn over the surface (5). Often, male and female wild turkeys will form separate flocks during the winter (10).

An opportunistic feeder (3) (5) (9), the wild turkey takes a great variety of different foods depending on the season and the location (9). However, plant matter always comprises a large proportion of its diet (3), with hard mast, such as acorns, pines and hackberry seeds, as well as corns, seeds, leaves, grains and berries, being particularly important (5) (7) (9). Insects and other invertebrates are also eaten during the spring and summer (3) (9) (10), and are especially important to the diet of young wild turkeys (4) (7)

The male wild turkey begins to ‘gobble’ and strut as part of the breeding courtship display around April or May (10), although some displays begin as early as January in parts of its range (5). Generally, the roosting males will gobble in the roost tree, before flying down to the display ground just after sunrise and strutting to attract a female (3). During the display, the male will continue gobbling, and may also puff out the feathers, spread the tail and drop the wings as it struts (7).  

Nests are usually built on the ground, with the female wild turkey typically selecting a nest site at the edge of a wood or forest, close to fields (3) (10). The concealed nest is a simple, shallow depression among the leaf litter or vegetation at the base of a tree or bush (3) (5) (7). The female lays a clutch of between 10 and 12 eggs, and begins to incubate continuously once the final egg has been laid. The eggs are incubated solely by the female for around 28 days (3) (5) (7) (10).

The female wild turkey looks after the young alone, and broods them throughout the summer (10). The young turkeys, known as ‘poults’, grow rapidly and are able to fly within ten days, although they roost on the ground with the female until they are around two weeks old (3).

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Wild turkey range

The wild turkey is native to North America, where it occurs in southern Canada, south throughout the United States and into Central Mexico (5) (9).

Each subspecies of wild turkey has a slightly different distribution (5). The eastern wild turkey, Meleagris gallapavo sylvestris, is the most widely distributed of the subspecies (3), occurring in parts of Canada and throughout the eastern half of the United States (3) (5). This particular subspecies has also been introduced to other parts of the United States, including California, Idaho and Washington (3).

The wild turkey has also been introduced to parts of Europe and New Zealand (5).

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Wild turkey habitat

To thrive, the wild turkey needs habitats which provide roosting and nesting cover, as well as year-round dependable food sources (3). Each subspecies of wild turkey prefers a slightly different habitat (4) (5), but the species as a whole is typically found in hardwood forests with scattered open areas and nearby agricultural fields, particularly where oak dominates (2) (3) (9). The wild turkey also requires an open source of water, such as a spring seep, stream, pond, lake or livestock watering source (4).

Generally, the wild turkey will nest and roost in woodlands and forests with a dense understory (3) (4) (9), or where cover is provided by fallen tree limbs, rocky outcrops, or brushy vegetation (3) (4).

This species most often rears its young in prairies, pastures, hayfields or abandoned fields, which have both cover from predators and an abundance of insects. In winter, the wild turkey is frequently found on south-facing slopes and in open oak forest, as well as close to unploughed agricultural land, fields spread with manure, fallow fields and prairies (9).

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Wild turkey status

The wild turkey is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Wild turkey threats

Historically, wild turkey populations have not always been properly managed. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the wild turkey population declined drastically, and this species became locally extinct in many North American states as a result of hunting and habitat loss (9).

However, this species has since made a resounding comeback in North America due to a hugely successful wildlife management recovery effort (3) (4) (5). Today, the wild turkey is considered a hugely important game bird, receiving attention from a wide range of organisations dedicated to its conservation (3).

Despite this, the wild turkey continues to face a number of threats. Development, overgrazing by livestock, lack of mature forest or roost trees and a lack of suitable habitat for raising young can all limit wild turkey populations (4). This species also regularly experiences high fluctuations in population size, largely due to weather conditions and predation (9).

Reproduction rates in the wild turkey can also vary year on year, which affects the number of young birds recruited into the adult population. If periods of poor reproduction are not acknowledged when the annual harvest levels are set, over-hunting of the adult population may result and could have a long-term impact on this species’ population size (11). Illegal poaching also presents a threat to wild turkey populations in some areas (3).

Loss of habitat is a continued threat to the wild turkey, with the loss of oak forests being of particular concern. The loss and deterioration of oak forest due to logging practices such as ‘high-grading’, where only the best trees are taken, results in the replacement of oak by tree species that provide the wild turkey with less suitable habitat. Oak forests are also increasingly threatened by diseases such as oak wilt and invasive insect species, which will in turn impact on wild turkey populations (3)

The release of game farm turkeys into the wild also poses a severe threat to wild turkey populations. If domestic and wild turkeys interbreed in the wild it could contaminate the gene pool of the wild turkey, which is better adapted to cope with harsh environmental conditions. Birds released from game farms also have a higher incidence of disease, which may then be transmitted to otherwise healthy wild turkeys (3).

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Wild turkey conservation

Despite being extirpated from most of North America by the late 1800s, the wild turkey represents a great wildlife management success story (12). Attempts to use game farm turkeys for reintroduction programs failed until the 1940s, when wild birds were caught and transported to new areas of suitable habitat. Wild-caught birds were much better at surviving than farm-raised birds, and quickly became established. The ‘trap and transplant’ technique was widely used across North America (2) (3), and today, approximately 7 million wild turkeys inhabit 49 American states and 7 Canadian provinces (9).

A number of organisations are now dedicated to the restoration and conservation of the wild turkey population in North America. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), for example, partners with state, federal and provincial wildlife agencies to conserve the wild turkey and protect the hunting heritage of North America (12).

The wild turkey is included on most state wildlife management plans. In Wisconsin, for example, a variety of management practices are being implemented by the state to ensure this species’ conservation. Measures include establishing new areas of suitable habitat, managing existing oak woodland and other suitable wild turkey habitat, educating hunters, and carrying out research and population monitoring (14).

Maintenance and enhancement of existing habitats on private land is also key to ensuring that wild turkey populations thrive (9) (14), and in Wisconsin, wildlife managers frequently meet with private landowners and advise them to maintain or improve habitat for the wild turkey (3).

Hunting of the wild turkey is strictly controlled, with new harvest regulations issued annually to minimise any long-term impact of hunting on wild turkey populations (3) (9) (14).

In addition to careful management, the wild turkey would benefit from further research into its life history and ecology, as well as a more consistent approach to monitoring turkey populations (9).

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Find out more

Find out more about wild turkey management and conservation:

 To find out more about the wild turkey and birds in general:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Coverts
Small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Invertebrates
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones), echinoderms, and others.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Wattle
A fleshy organ that hangs from the bill, throat or eye of some bird species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Wild turkey (September, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/id
  3. Lobner, E. (Ed.) (1998) Wisconsin Turkey Hunter’s Guide. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Madison, Wisconsin. Available at:
    http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/hunt/Turkey/Guide.pdf
  4. USDA Wildlife Habitat Management Institute: Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet - Wild turkey (September, 2011)
    http://www.mn.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/ecs/wild/turkey.pdf
  5. Eaton, S.W. (1992) Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/022/articles/introduction
  6. Dunn, J. and Alderfer, J.K. (2006) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Books, Des Moines, Iowa.
  7. Avibirds European Birdguide Online - Wild turkey (September, 2011)
    http://www.avibirds.com/euhtml/Wild_Turkey.html
  8. Dickson, J.G. (1992) The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
  9. Wisconsin All-Bird Conservation Plan - Wild turkey (September, 2011)
    http://www.wisconsinbirds.org/plan/species/witu.htm
  10. NatureServe Explorer - Wild turkey (September, 2011)
    http://www.natureserve.org/explorer
  11. Paisley, N., Wright, R.G., Kubisiak, J.F. and Rolley, R.E. (1998) Reproductive ecology of eastern wild turkeys in southwestern Wisconsin. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 62(3): 911-916.
  12. National Wild Turkey Federation (September, 2011)
    http://www.nwtf.org/
  13. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Turkey hunting in Wisconsin (September, 2011)
    http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/hunt/turkey/
  14. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (2007) Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Management Plan (2007-2013). Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Madison, Wisconsin. Available at:
    http://dnr.wi.gov/fish/documents/fwhplan.pdf
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Wild turkey male calling  
Wild turkey male calling

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