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wild turkey

Meleagris gallopavo

What do they look like?

Wild turkeys are large birds with long legs, long necks and large fan-shaped tails. They have short, rounded wings. Male wild turkeys have dark, metallic feathers. Their wing feathers are black with brown and white stripes. Males have a red wattle (a piece of skin that hangs down under the chin), a knob on their forehead (called a caruncle) and a blackish tuft of feathers on the front of their breast. Their legs are pink, pinkish-gray, or silver-gray. They have spurs on the back of their legs that can grow as long as 3.2 cm. Their heads are red, blue, or white, depending on the season. Male wild turkeys are called gobblers.

Female wild turkeys (called hens) are smaller and lighter-colored than males. Most females do not have a breast tuft. They have a grayish head and feathers on their necks.

Male gobblers weigh 6.8 to 11 kg. Hens usually weigh 3.6 to 5.4 kg. Turkeys' weights change throughout the year depending on how much food is available. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • ornamentation
  • Range mass
    3.6 to 11 kg
    7.93 to 24.23 lb

Where do they live?

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are native to the Nearctic region. They are found throughout most of the eastern United States, and in patches throughout the western United States. They are also found in parts of northern Mexico, including in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Wild turkeys have been introduced to Germany and New Zealand. (Eaton, 1992)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. (Eaton, 1992)

How do they reproduce?

Wild turkeys are polygynous (one male mates with many females). Males try to attract females by calling (called "gobbling"). The gobbles of male wild turkeys can be heard more than 1.5 kilometers away (or about a mile). Males also try to attract females by "strutting". They do this by walking around with their tail fanned out, their wings dragging on the ground, their feathers puffed up and their throat puffed out. (Eaton, 1992)

Wild turkeys breed in early spring. Southern populations usually begin courtship activities in late January and northern populations begin in late February. Turkeys raise one brood of chicks per year.

Turkey nests are just shallow bowl-shaped holes scratched in the dirt. They are usually under dense brush or vines, or in deep grass. The female scratches out the nest and lays 4 to 17 eggs. She incubates the eggs for 25 to 31 days. The chicks are well-developed when they hatch. They are able to walk and feed themselves the day after they hatch. For the first two weeks after hatching, the female covers the chicks at night (called brooding) to protect them and keep them warm. She also protects them from predators. The young turkeys are called poults. Male poults stay with their mother through the fall. Female poults stay with their mother until spring.

Turkeys can breed when they are about 10 months old. However, male turkeys usually do not breed this young because females prefer to mate with older males. (Eaton, 1992)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Wild turkeys breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Courtship begins in early spring (January to February).
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 17
  • Average eggs per season
    11
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    25 to 31 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 (high) hours
  • Range time to independence
    4 to 10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    365 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    365 days
    AnAge

Male wild turkeys do not care for their chicks. The female parent does all of the parental care. The female makes the nest, incubates the eggs, and cares for the chicks. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female

How long do they live?

The oldest known wild turkey lived at least 13 years. Most wild turkeys probably live less than two years.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    13 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1.3 to 1.6 years

How do they behave?

Wild turkeys are diurnal (active during the day). At night, they roost in trees. Wild turkeys do not migrate. They stay in the same area year-round.

Wild turkeys have good eyesight and hearing. They are swift runners and fast fliers. Turkeys have been recorded flying at 88.5 km/h.

Turkeys are social. During the winter, they form groups (called bands). Within each band, some turkeys may be dominant over others. In some populations of wild turkeys, each band may defend a territory against other bands. (Eaton, 1992)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range of this species at this time.

How do they communicate with each other?

Wild turkeys use calls and body signals to communicate. For example, during the spring, males will fan out their tails, strut around and "gobble" to try to attract females. Wild turkeys give at least 15 different calls. The most easily recognized call is the "gobble". Males use the "gobble" call to attract female mates and to tell other males to stay away. (Eaton, 1992)

What do they eat?

Wild turkeys are omnivorous. They mostly eat plant material, including acorns, nuts, seeds, buds, leaves and fern fronds. They also eat insects and salamanders. Wild turkeys search for food on the ground, but they occasionally fly to the top of a shrub or a small tree to feed on fruit or buds. They usually feed for 2 to 3 hours after dawn and before dusk. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators of wild turkey eggs and nestlings include raccoons, opossums, striped skunks, grey foxes, birds, woodchucks, rodents, spotted skunks, bobcats, rat snakes and bull snakes.

Humans are the primary predator of adult wild turkeys. Other predators include coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles, and great horned owls. (Eaton, 1992)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Wild turkeys provide food for their predators and impact populations of the plants whose seeds and nuts they eat.

Wild turkeys also host at least 60 different species of parasites. These include 9 protozoans, 11 trematodes, 10 cestodes, 1 acanthocephalan, 17 nematodes and 12 arthropods. (Eaton, 1992)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

We do not know of any ways that wild turkeys hurt humans.

How do they interact with us?

Wild turkeys are one of the most popular game bird species in the United States. State Departments of Natural Resources earn money from turkey hunting by selling hunting permits.

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • food

Are they endangered?

Wild turkeys are plentiful and are widespread. Many states are starting to introduce them into previously uninhabited areas, increasing their range and distribution. Current estimates of wild turkey populations are around 4 million in North America (Dickson, 1995).

Wild turkeys are not legally protected. In fact, they are hunted in many states.

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jason McCullough (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

References

Davis, H. 1949. The American Wild Turkey. SC: Small Arms Technical Company.

Dickson, J. 1995. "Return of Wild Turkeys" (On-line). U.S. Geological Survey: Our Living Resources. Accessed March 12, 2006 at http://biology.usgs.gov/s+t/noframe/b028.htm.

Eaton, S. 1992. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, P Stettenheim, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 22. Philadelphia, PA: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Hewitt, O. 1967. The Wild Turkey and its Management. Washington, DC: The Wildlife Society.

McIlhenny, E. 1914. The Wild Turkey and its Hunting. Garden City: Doubleday, Page and Co.

National Geographic Society, 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society.

Steward, D., G. Hurst. 1998. "Mississippi State University Extension Service--Wild Turkey" (On-line). Accessed 03/17/04 at http://msucares.com/pubs/infosheets/is636.htm.

Williams, L. 1981. The Book of the Wild Turkey. Tulsa: Winchester Press.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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McCullough, J. 2001. "Meleagris gallopavo" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 01, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Meleagris_gallopavo/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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