Photo by Justin Grose
DID YOU KNOW?
40 wild turkey facts
by Lisa Densmore
In honor of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s 40th Anniversary, here are 40 facts about the wild turkey’s life cycle, anatomy, habitat and history.
- The 18 tail feathers that form an adult male’s fan are the same length. Feathers on a jake’s fan are longer in the middle.
- A turkey’s snood, the long fleshy object over a male’s beak, has no known physiological function. When a tom relaxes, its snood is only a half-inch long, but when he struts, his snood engorges with blood and hangs down over his beak.
- Caruncles, the pale fleshy bumps on a wild turkey’s head and neck are more pronounced on the lower portion of a tom’s neck and turn red when he struts or becomes aggressive.
- The head and neck of a tom is like a mood ring, changing color from pink to red to blue to white depending on how excited he is. If a gobbler’s head and neck turn white, he’s the most ramped up.
- The average adult wild turkey has 5,000 to 6,000 feathers.
- The beard of a turkey looks like a tuft of coarse hair but is made of feathers. The average length of a male turkey beard is 9 inches.
- About 20 percent of female turkeys have beards, usually shorter and thinner than a male’s.
- Adult males typically weigh between 11 and 24 pounds. Hens are much smaller at 5.5 to 12 pounds. The largest male on record weighed was 37.1 pounds.
- Wild turkeys can see color and have excellent daytime eyesight, three times keener than a human and with 270 degrees of peripheral vision. They see poorly in the dark.
Habits and habitat
- Wild turkeys thrive where hardwoods or conifer-hardwood forests are mingled with farmland, natural clearings, fields and marshes.
- Wild turkeys are omnivorous foragers. Though they prefer to eat nuts and seeds, they’ll also down berries, insects, grasses and the occasional small reptile or amphibian. Their ability to eat a range of foods is one of the factors that helped wild turkey populations recover.
- In addition to strutting, gobbling and drumming, male turkeys spit as part of their mating ritual.
- Male wild turkeys are polygamous and each spring will mate with as many hens as they can.
- Hens build nests on the ground, in dirt depressions surrounded by vegetation, then lay an egg per day until their clutch contains from 8 to 16 buffy, spotted eggs.
- Hens incubate their eggs for about 28 days. When the poults hatch, they leave the nest within 24 hours, but stay with their mother for up to a year. Toms are not involved in poult rearing.
- Agile in the air, wild turkeys can fly more than 55 miles per hour.
- Wild turkeys prefer to run rather than fly from a predator. They can run up to 25 miles per hour.
- If cornered, a wild turkey, especially a large tom, is a vicious fighter, kicking with its legs, stabbing with its spurs, biting with its beak and slamming its body against an attacker.
- The average lifespan of a turkey is three to five years in the wild. The oldest known wild turkey lived to be 13 years old.
- There are five subspecies of the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, determined by their geographic location, coloration and behavior: Eastern, Merriam’s, Gould’s, Osceola and Rio Grande. The ocellated wild turkey is considered a separate species, Meleagris ocellata.
- The Eastern wild turkey has the largest range and is the most numerous subspecies — more 5 million birds, or approximately 75 percent of all wild turkeys. The majority of wild turkeys harvested each hunting season are Eastern wild turkeys.
- The range of the Osceola wild turkey is limited to the Florida peninsula, which is why it is sometimes called the Florida wild turkey. It is smaller and darker than the Eastern wild turkey with less barring on its wings.
- The Merriam’s wild turkey can be found throughout Ponderosa pine forests and mesas in the Rocky Mountains and on the neighboring Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota flatlands, as well as in Oregon and New Mexico.
- Native to the southern Great Plains, the long legs on the Rio Grande turkey are adapted to prairie habitat. They are typically found next to rivers and streams that run through mesquite, pine and scrub oak. Texas has the most Rio Grande wild turkeys with a population estimated at more than 600,000.
- Numbering less than 800 birds, the Gould’s wild turkey, also known as the Mexican wild turkey, is the one of the rarest of the wild turkey subspecies, existing mainly in mountainous areas of northwestern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona.
- The ocellated wild turkey, with a range limited to the Yucatan region of Mexico and the Petén region of Guatemala and Belize, is the only species of turkey not found in the United States.
History and conservation
- Christopher Columbus is believed to be the first westerner to see, and likely taste, a wild turkey.
- Once widespread throughout Mexico, the Aztecs believed the Ocellated turkey to be a manifestation of “Tezcatlipoca,” a trickster god, and domesticated it. The Spaniards brought the domesticated wild turkey back to Europe. From Spain, it spread to France and Great Britain as a farm bird.
- In 1620, not realizing wild turkeys were native to the New World, the pilgrims brought turkeys with them from Europe.
- The wild turkey got its name in the 16th century when they were imported to Great Britain via Constantinople, Turkey, a primary trade route of that era. The Brits associated the birds with the country of Turkey and the name stuck.
- Though Benjamin Franklin never publicly voted against the bald eagle, he preferred the wild turkey as the national bird. He called the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character… too lazy to fish for itself… besides he is a rank coward…” Franklin called the wild turkey “a bird of courage which would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
- The Osceola wild turkey is named for the 19th century Seminole Indian Chief Osceola who stabbed a proposed treaty with his knife when the U.S. government tried to remove the Seminole nation from their native lands.
- In the 1930s, wild turkeys were extirpated from Canada and survived only in small isolated populations in the United States due to over hunting and habitat loss. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in North America.
- Merriam’s turkeys are named for Clinton Hart Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society. In 1886, Merriam was named head of the government department that would eventually become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Gould’s wild turkeys are named for the 19th century British ornithologist, John Gould, a rival of John James Audubon and a contemporary of Charles Darwin.
- Many Native American tribes, particularly in the East, revered the wild turkey as a dietary staple. Turkey feathers were part of headdresses and rituals. Some tribes wore cloaks of turkey feathers.
- The Caddo tribe in south-central United States still performs a turkey dance. The dance takes place in the afternoon and finishes by sunset when turkeys return to their roosts. Traditionally, Caddo people established their villages near turkey roosts. The turkeys served as sentinels, making noise when intruders approached.
- During his term as president, Abraham Lincoln informally spared a turkey, named Jack, for his son Tad, who wanted to keep it for a pet. President George H.W. Bush revived the tradition in 1989 and every president afterward has pardoned a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys ever since.
- Trap-and-transfer programs by wildlife agencies in the 1950s and habitat restoration and conservation efforts by groups such as the NWTF have brought the population of wild turkeys back to the point where they are now hunted in 49 states, seven provinces in Canada and portions of Mexico.
- In 1973, the NWTF was founded with the mission of conserving wild turkeys and preserving and restoring wild turkey habitat. The NWTF is now recognized as a source for all things wild turkey.