Wildlife Profile: Wild Turkey
A wild turkey's lifestyle and habits make this gamebird one of the most sought after in the world. With colorful feathers, a paintbrush-like beard, sharp spurs and symbolic strut, hunters and wildlife watchers consider the wild turkey a beauty to look at and the devil to bring home.
Looks aside, the wild turkey is part of a conservation story like no other. North American turkey populations dwindled to an all-time low of 30,000 in the 1930s, but today, hunters, conservationists and wildlife agencies have brought those totals to a high of 5.6 million birds. Now flourishing in 49 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico, the wild turkey has a historic and physical lineage that many wildlife biologists claim significant. But why?
"Wild turkeys are unique. Their size and alertness have made them an extremely challenging bird to hunt for ages," said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, NWTF senior vice president for conservation programs. "There's nothing like a gobbler in full strut when he's showing off his colors and drumming — bottom line."
The Eastern wild turkey is the most common of the five subspecies in North America; they are found throughout the Eastern half of the United States. The Merriam's subspecies ranges along the Rocky Mountains and neighboring prairies of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Rio Grandes roam throughout parts of Texas and into Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
Gould's turkeys are more common in central Mexico, southern Arizona and New Mexico. Finally, the Osceola is found only on the Florida peninsula.
Male and Female Turkey Characteristics
Male and female wild turkeys are distinguished by two main characteristics: spurs and beards. Both sexes are born with a small button spur on the back of their legs. Soon after hatching, the male's spur begins to grow pointed and curved, and eventually reaches lengths of up to 2 inches. Hen's spurs don't normally grow.
Gobblers, or male turkeys, also have beards, which are modified feathers that grow out from the chest and average 9 inches long. The longest beard to date is recorded at just over 18 inches. It is not uncommon for some turkeys to have multiple beards. Hens can have beards, although only about 10 percent to 20 percent of them do.
An adult turkey's body is covered with between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers, which are a color combination of green, red, bronze, copper and gold. A gobbler is more colorful than a hen, which helps keep her camouflaged from predators and other dangers. Gobblers like to show off their tailfeathers and when fanned in full strut, they are one of the finest displays in the wildlife kingdom.
Mating season is anytime between February and April, and the courtship begins when turkeys are still flocked together in wintering areas. After mating, hens search for a place to lay eggs. In most areas, nests are found in shallow dirt depressions that are surrounded by woody vegetation that conceals the nest.
Hens normally lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs during a two-week period. A newly hatched flock of poults is usually ready to leave the nest within 12 to 24 hours to feed. Poults eat insects, berries and seeds, while adults consume a similar diet that also includes acorns and small reptiles.
Habitat and Improvement
Open habitat is essential to a turkey's feeding and mating habits. But they also use forested areas as safe havens to hide from predators and to roost in trees at night.
The lack of quality habitat has been a serious problem in the past. But with the passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937, an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, money continues to aid conservation projects across North America, including the restoration of the wild turkey and its habitat. Wildlife agencies and the NWTF trap and transfer birds with rocket nets and relocate them to suitable areas, which is why turkey numbers are at an all-time high.
As a member, please continue to do your part, whether financially or in the field. The sound of the wild turkey resonates from the Western mountains to the East Coast Low Country, thanks to those who have made the wild turkey the king of comeback stories.