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What is a Wild Turkey?

By B. Schreiber
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The wild turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo, is a bird native to North America. It is a plump, mostly brown ground bird, though it can fly short distances. The turkey is a large bird and an adult male can be four feet (1.2 meters) long. The birds have a loud cry of "gobble" that is a telltale of their presence. The wild turkey is a popular game bird for North American hunters.

Turkeys have mostly brown feathers that end in black tips, with wing feathers that can be green to copper. Males and females do not have feathers on their throats and heads, but the male wild turkey has a large, fleshy red patch of skin at the throat called a wattle. Both sexes have a fleshy blob of skin at the front of the head called a snood. Wild turkeys exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females look different. Males are larger, show more coloring and have bristle-like feathers on their breasts. Male turkeys are called toms while females are referred to as hens.

The wild turkey is a member of the Phasianidae family. There are two subspecies, one in North America and one in southern Mexico. The birds can live in varied habitats but are often found near oak forests, as acorns are one of their preferred foods. The birds also spend the nights in trees and are therefore usually found near the forest's edge if not inside it.

Turkeys get most of their food on or near the ground. They will eat fallen tree nuts, fruit, some vegetation, and occasionally insects. Growing chicks rely more on insects in the diet. In the wild, turkeys can be observed scratching the ground debris in search of seeds.

The wild turkey male engages in competitive displays in a group called a lek to attract females. Male turkeys have multiple partners and do not help to build a nest or raise chicks. Females build crude nests in the ground; these are sometimes no more than a shallow depression. Females can lay up to around fifteen eggs, which are about twice the size of chicken eggs.

The female wild turkey raises the brood, sometimes in groups with other hens and their chicks. Male chicks spend their first year with their mother, while female chicks become independent in the first year. Wild turkeys may spend their lives in the same area if there is sufficient food and shelter.

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Discussion Comments
By Cageybird — On Mar 28, 2014

I've seen a few wild turkeys up close in a wildlife sanctuary and they are an impressive sight. They can be aggressive at times, but I threw some pieces of apple and they ran to retrieve them.

By Reminiscence — On Mar 27, 2014

There's a oft-repeated story about Benjamin Franklin suggesting the turkey should be our national bird, not the bald eagle. He was referring to the wild turkey, with its majestic plumage and tenacious personality. He wasn't thinking about the domestic version that ends up in Thanksgiving Day dinners every year.

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