Ask Dr. Tom: Can Turkeys Swim?

I did not know turkeys could swim. [I recorded] a video of a gobbler swimming across a small pond on a spring morning in Kentucky. The temperature was 28 degrees, he was in a field with frost on his feathers. I helped him up and he walked over to the pond, entered the water and paddled like a duck then went into the woods.-Lanny Copeland

Almost every bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian is capable of swimming, though some are far better at it than others. One possible exception would be some humans! Over the years while working on wild turkey research and restoration projects, I have had the opportunity to observe many aspects of their behavior. While I have never witnessed an adult wild turkey swimming, I have seen young poults jump into streams in order to swim to a hen that easily crossed on foot or on wing and was assembly yelping. 

I have seen photos and received accounts of adult turkeys swimming and have witnessed other game birds doing their best facsimile of a “doggie paddle.” Wild turkeys, of course, are not well equipped for taking to the water. Without webbed feet and having feathers that do not shed water as well as those of waterfowl, swimming any distance is a real challenge. Wild turkey feathers dry quickly from sunlight and body heat but do not have the extensive oils that waterfowl feathers are saturated with through the preening process. Soaking up water makes turkey feathers heavier and does not help with buoyancy at all. Air sacs that are part of the respiratory system in birds may help to offset soaking wet feather weight to a degree, but crossing wide bodies of water by swimming is not in the cards for turkeys. In most cases, swimming seems to be the only option the bird thinks it has left or occurs accidentally.

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