Turkeys are large birds of the Phasianidae family. This family also includes pheasants, grouse, peafowl, and partridges. Turkeys are native to North America. They live in forests, swamps, and grasslands from the Canadian border to Mexico and from the East Coast to the Midwest. Isolated populations are found from the Midwest to the West Coast.
There are five subspecies of North American wild turkey: eastern, Florida, Rio Grande, Merriam's, and Gould's. A separate species is the smaller and more colorful ocellated turkey. It is found in Central America. This article discusses only the North American species.
Characteristics of Turkeys
Turkeys have long, robust bodies with long necks and small, mostly bare heads. Their feathers are primarily black and brown; wing feathers have light and dark bands, and body feathers are iridescent. Turkeys are fast runners. But they will also fly to evade predators or reach a roost up in a tree.
The adult male turkey is called a gobbler or a tom. It weighs about 18 pounds (8 kilograms). It is about 4 feet (1.2 meters) long from head to tail. A "beard" of long, thin feathers hangs from its breast. Its featherless head is colored in shades of white, blue, and red.
The female turkey is called a hen. It weighs about half as much as the tom. Its head has a few small feathers, and it may have a short beard.
The Life of Turkeys
Wild turkeys eat insects, grass seeds, green leaves, and many kinds of fruit and seeds from shrubs and trees. They will scratch in the leaves on the ground during fall and winter to find food.
In the spring, the gobbler fans out his tail, struts back and forth, and gobbles—a warbling call—to attract hens. After mating, the hen lays about twelve brown-spotted eggs in a well-hidden nest on the ground. The gobbler does not take part in nesting or caring for the young.
After four weeks of incubation, the young turkeys, called poults, hatch. Poults are able to fly when they are only eight days old. They also are able to find their own food. Poults remain under the hen's care for their first summer. But more than half are caught by predators.
Wild turkeys fortunate enough to avoid predators may live to be two or three years old. Human hunters also kill turkeys but not in great numbers.
The wild turkey was widely hunted for food by early settlers in the United States. In later years, turkeys were hunted to be sold in markets. Commercial hunting ended in the late 1800s. But by that time the wild turkey had already disappeared from most of America's woodlands.
Wild turkeys were the subject of an early wildlife conservation program, begun in the 1930s. The birds were caught where they were still plentiful, and small flocks were released where they no longer existed.
The restocked turkeys flourished. Wild turkeys now live in every U.S. state except Alaska. (It is too cold in the winter for turkeys to survive there.) There are now more than 5 million wild turkeys in the United States and Mexico. Small populations are found in southern Canada and in Germany.
The Domestic Turkey
The domestic turkey is the only important domestic animal that originated in the New World. Native people tamed wild turkeys in Mexico about 2,000 years ago. A few of the birds were carried to Europe by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s. Since then the domestic turkey has been raised in captivity worldwide, particularly on poultry farms for commercial use.
Domestic turkeys come in a variety of colors, including white, black, and reddish brown. They are typically larger and heavier than wild turkeys. They are unable to run quickly or fly.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.