The wild turkey is one of two turkeys in the bird family and is scientifically known as Meleagris gallopavo. The one other species in the turkey family is the Ocellated Turkey. These birds are related to pheasants.
The name turkey has several possible origins. One of these could be that when this bird, which has a variety of different calls, is frightened it makes a loud, "turc-turc-turc" sound. Another possible origin of its name is that the turkey may have been confused with the guinea fowl which had been imported to Spain from Africa through the country of Turkey.
Turkeys which are native to North America once ranged from New England to over most of the Mexican plateau. These abundant creatures were even thought of by Benjamin Franklin as a more suitable bird than the bald eagle to be the symbol for the United States. However, with domestication and hunting the range of the wild turkey and the turkey itself dwindled.
It wasn’t until the wild turkey was nearly gone that conservation efforts were successful in helping this bird to make a comeback. For sometime the appearance of a wild turkey in the land between southern Pennsylvania and Florida and some areas of Mexico was rarely seen. But now this creature has been successfully reintroduced to most of its original range as well as into new territory such as Hawaii and the western United States with more than 5.6 million wild turkeys in the US today.
The Turkey's Body
The male turkey is approximately 3’ tall and weighs about 20 pounds. The female is similar although smaller framed and weighing only about 16 pounds. These large birds have a 40" wing span with feathers that contain a metallic luster reflecting brown, green, and red. The turkey’s head looks small and bald at the top of its long neck. Although the head is actually sparsely covered with hair-like bristles.
The male turkey, called a tom, also has a long, red, fleshy growth at the base of its beak, known as the snood. In addition red fleshy growths can be seen along its neck. These are called wattles. The male is also equipped with spurs ¼" to 1 ¼" long on its lower legs. The wild turkey, unlike its domesticated counter part which has been bred for shorter body length and a heavier breast, is able to fly. They can even fly for short distances as fast as 55 mph.
The wild turkey which lives in woods, mountain forests, and wooded swamps often roosts in trees. It feeds on a variety of leaves, seeds, berries, buds and roots, including acorns, chestnuts, cherries, blue berries, and rose hips. It also will eat a variety of insects as well as snails.
The Turkey's Nest
During mating season the male struts, fans its tail, and gobbles to attract one or more mates as well as to fend off other male turkeys. Once mating has taken place the female constructs a well hidden ground nest of grasses and dry leaves. The hen then lays about 12-18 cream to buff colored eggs, which are lightly spotted with red.
The eggs incubate for approximately 28 days with the female as their sole caretaker. Often only half of the chicks which hatch will make it to maturity since the young are vulnerable to both enemies and damp inclement weather. Predators include bobcats, hawks, owls, eagles, snakes, coyotes, fox, and raccoons to name just a few.
Young turkeys are practically bare which makes cold, damp weather a threat. However, at just 1-2 weeks of age these birds can make short flights, several months before they are considered mature. The life span of a wild turkey can reach 12 years, although 5 years is a common life time.
- The eggs of a turkey are almost twice the size of a large chicken egg.
- The Aztecs of Mexico had domesticated the turkey long before any Europeans arrived.
- About 240 million domesticated turkeys are raised in the United States each year.
- The wild turkey can run at speeds of up to 15 mph (24 km/h).
- Turkeys sometimes eat frogs, lizards, snakes, salamanders, and crabs.
- The first meal eaten on the moon by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldin was roast turkey in foil packets.
- The ballroom dance the "turkey trot" was named from the short, jerky steps of a turkey.
- Each year in Nov. since 1946, the National Turkey Foundation presents the president with a live turkey. This turkey is pardoned by the president and sent to live on a historical farm.
- Commercially raised turkeys cannot fly.
- Mt. Tom in Massachusetts was named after a wild turkey that lived there. It may have been the last original turkey of that area.
Books for Children
- A Thanksgiving Turkey by Julian Scheer - The story of a young boy who hunts for a wild turkey with his grandfather, illustrates the importance of intergenerational relationships and respect for nature. Nice for children 4-10. (amazon.com has it)
- Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey by Joe Hutto - This book describes the habits, characteristics, and intelligence of this interesting bird. Appropriate for children ages 10 and older. (amazon.com has it)
- The Great Turkey Walk by Kathleen Karr - A story of a young boy in the 1800's who sets out to drive 1000 domesticated turkeys to market. A comical book with some lessons to be learned. Interesting for ages 7-13. (amazon.com has it)
- A Turkey For Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting - This story about a turkey forced to go with Mr. Moose to the Moose’s house because he is wanted for Thanksgiving dinner is surprised to find he is the guest of honor. (amazon.com has it) It is also available as a book and audio cassette pack. (amazon.com has it)
- Wild Turkey by Peterson Multimedia Guides, North American Birds - Lots of information about the wild turkey including its habitat, range, field marks, voice and more on this page.
- Meleagris gallopavo Wild Turkey by Jason McCullough - this page describes the turkey, its habitat, and habits.
- Turkey for the Holidays has some interesting facts and information about turkeys on their turkey fun, facts, and history and lore pages.
- Consumer by the National Turkey Federation includes some historical information and turkey trivia.
- See our Thanksgiving page to discover some more turkey facts and learn the American traditions which surround this bird.
- The Wildlife Survival page.