Wild Turkey

A Male (Tom) Wild Turkey during mating season.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is native to North America and is the heaviest member of the diverse Galliformes. It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which was originally derived from a southern Mexican subspecies of wild turkey (not the related ocellated turkey). Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name from the domesticated variety being imported to Britain in ships coming from the Levant via Spain. The British at the time therefore associated the wild turkey with the country Turkey and the name prevails.

Description Edit

Adult wild turkeys have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs. The body feathers are generally blackish and dark, sometimes grey brown overall with a coppery sheen that becomes more complex in adult males. Adult males, called toms or gobblers, have a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles on the throat and neck. The head has fleshy growths called caruncles. Juvenile males are called jakes; the difference between an adult male and a juvenile is that the jake has a very short beard and his tail fan has longer feathers in the middle. The adult male's tail fan feathers will be all the same length. When males are excited, a fleshy flap on the bill expands, and this, the wattles and the bare skin of the head and neck all become engorged with blood, almost concealing the eyes and bill. The long fleshy object over a male's beak is called a snood. Each foot has three toes in front, with a shorter, rear-facing toe in back; males have a spur behind each of their lower legs.

Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. As with many other species of the Galliformes, turkeys exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Females, called hens, have feathers that are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes; in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. The primary wing feathers have white bars. Turkeys have 5000 to 6000 feathers. Tail feathers are of the same length in adults, different lengths in juveniles. Males typically have a "beard", a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 230 mm (9.1 in) in length. In some populations, 10 to 20% of females have a beard, usually shorter and thinner than that of the male. The adult male (or "tom") normally weighs from 5 to 11 kg (11 to 24 lb) and measures 100–125 cm (39–49 in) in length. The adult female (or "hen") is typically much smaller at 2.5–5.4 kg (5.5–11.9 lb) and is 76 to 95 cm (30 to 37 in) long. Per two large studies, the average weight of adult males is 7.6 kg (17 lb) and the average weight of adult females is 4.26 kg (9.4 lb). The wings are relatively small, as is typical of the galliform order, and the wingspan ranges from 1.25 to 1.44 m (4 ft 1 in to 4 ft 9 in). The wing chord is only 20 to 21.4 cm (7.9 to 8.4 in). The bill is also relatively small, as adults measure 2 to 3.2 cm (0.79 to 1.26 in) in culmen length. The tarsus of the wild turkey is quite long and sturdy, measuring from 9.7 to 19.1 cm (3.8 to 7.5 in). The tail is also relatively long, ranging from 24.5 to 50.5 cm (9.6 to 19.9 in). The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, weighed 16.85 kg (37.1 lb), with records of tom turkeys weighing over 13.8 kg (30 lb) uncommon but not rare. While it is usually rather lighter than the waterfowl, after the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator), the turkey has the second heaviest maximum weight of any North American bird. Going on average mass, several other birds on the continent, including the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus columbianus) and the very rare California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and whooping crane (Grus americana) surpass the mean weight of turkeys. On one hand, none of these other species are as sexually dimorphic in size as the wild turkey, but on the other, they are also far less numerous and are not legally hunted unlike the turkey, thousands of which are weighed every year during hunting season.

Habitat Edit

Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. They seemingly can adapt to virtually any dense native plant community as long as coverage and openings are widely available. Open, mature forest with a variety of interspersion of tree species appear to be preferred. In the Northeast of North America, turkeys are most profuse in hardwood timber of oak-hickory (Quercus-Carya) and forests of red oak (Quercus rubra), beech (Fagus grandifolia), cherry (Prunus serotina) and white ash (Fraxinus americana). Best ranges for turkeys in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont sections have an interspersion of clearings, farms, and plantations with preferred habitat along principal rivers and in cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) swamps. Appalachian and Cumberland plateaus, birds occupy mixed forest of oaks and pines on southern and western slopes, also hickory with diverse understories. Bald cypress and sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) swamps of s. Florida; also hardwood of Cliftonia (a heath) and oak in north-central Florida. Lykes Fisheating Creek area of s. Florida has up to 51% cypress, 12% hardwood hammocks, 17% glades of short grasses with isolated live oak (Quercus virginiana); nesting in neighboring prairies. Original habitat here was mainly longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) with turkey oak (Quercus laevis) and slash pine (Pinus caribaea) "flatwoods," now mainly replaced by slash pine plantations.

Behavior Edit

Flight Edit

Despite their weight, wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated counterparts, are agile fliers. In ideal habitat of open woodland or wooded grasslands, they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than 400 m (a quarter mile).

Vocalizations Edit

Turkeys have many vocalizations: "gobbles", "clucks", "putts", "purrs", "yelps", "cutts", "whines", "cackles", and "kee-kees". In early spring, male turkeys, also called gobblers or toms, gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Males also emit a low-pitched "drumming" sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken. In addition they produce a sound known as the "spit" which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack. Hens "yelp" to let gobblers know their location. Gobblers often yelp in the manner of females, and hens can gobble, though they rarely do so. Immature males, called jakes, often yelp.

Foraging Edit

Wild turkeys are omnivorous, foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees to feed. They prefer eating acorns, nuts and other hard mast of various trees, including hazel, chestnut, hickory, and pinyon pine as well as various seeds, berries such as juniper and bearberry, roots and insects. Turkeys also occasionally consume amphibians and small reptiles such as lizards and snakes. Poults have been observed eating insects, berries, and seeds. Wild turkeys often feed in cow pastures, sometimes visit back yard bird feeders, and favor croplands after harvest to scavenge seeds on the ground. Turkeys are also known to eat a wide variety of grasses. Turkey populations can reach large numbers in small areas because of their ability to forage for different types of food. Early morning and late afternoon are the desired times for eating.

Social Structure and Mating Edit

Males are polygamous, mating with as many hens as they can. Male wild turkeys display for females by puffing out their feathers, spreading out their tails and dragging their wings. This behavior is most commonly referred to as strutting. Their heads and necks are colored brilliantly with red, blue and white. The color can change with the turkey's mood, with a solid white head and neck being the most excited. They use gobbling, drumming/booming and spitting as signs of social dominance, and to attract females. Courtship begins during the months of March and April, which is when turkeys are still flocked together in winter areas.

Males may be seen courting in groups, often with the dominant male gobbling, spreading their tail feathers (strutting), drumming/booming and spitting. In a study, the average dominant male that courted as part of a pair of males fathered six more eggs than males that courted alone. Genetic analysis of pairs of males courting together shows that they are close relatives, with half of their genetic material being identical. The theory behind the team-courtship is that the less dominant male would have a greater chance of passing along shared genetic material than if it were courting alone.

When mating is finished, females search for nest sites. Nests are shallow dirt depressions engulfed with woody vegetation. Hens lay a clutch of 10–14 eggs, usually one per day. The eggs are incubated for at least 28 days. The poults are precocial and nidifugous, leaving the nest in about 12–24 hours.

Predators Edit

Predators of eggs and nestlings include raccoons (Procyon lotor), Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), groundhogs(Marmota monax), other rodents and spotted skunks (Spilogale ssp.) Predators of poults in addition to nestlings and eggs also include several snakes, namely rat snakes (Elaphe ssp.), gophersnakes (Pituophis catenifer) and pinesnakes (Pituophis ssp.), and predators mainly on poults include raptors such as bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), barred owl (Strix varia), red-shouldered (Buteo lineatus), red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis), white-tailed (Geranoaetus albicaudatus) and harris's hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) and even the smallish Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) (both likely of very small poults). Mortality of poults is greatest in the first 14 days of life, especially of those roosting on the ground, decreasing most notably after half a year, when they attain near adult sizes.

Predators of both adults and poults include coyotes (Canis latrans), gray wolf (Canis lupus), bobcats (Lynx rufus), cougars (Puma concolor), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and American black bears (Ursus americanus). In addition to poults, hens and adult-sized fledglings (but not, as far as is known, adult male toms) are vulnerable to predation by great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), northern goshawk (Accipiter gentiles), domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), domestic cats (Felis catus), and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Humans are now the leading predator of adult turkeys. When approached by potential predators, turkeys and their poults usually run away rather than fly away from potential predators, though they may also fly short distances if pressed.

Occasionally, if cornered, adult turkeys may try to fight off predators and large male toms can be especially aggressive in self-defense. When fighting off predators, turkeys may kick with their legs, using the spurs on their back of the legs as a weapon, bite with their beak and ram with their relatively large bodies and may be able to deter predators up to the size of mid-sized mammals. Hen turkeys have been seen to chase off at least two species of hawks in flight when their poults are threatened. Occasionally, turkeys may behave aggressively towards humans, especially in areas where natural habitats are scarce. They also have been seen to chase off humans as well. However, attacks can usually be deterred and minor injuries can be avoided by giving turkeys a respectful amount of space and keeping outdoor spaces clean and undisturbed.

Range and Population Edit

The wild turkey in the United States in 1957 ranged from Arizona to southeastern Oklahoma and thence through Tennessee, West Virginia, and New York, and south to Florida and Texas. It formerly ranged north to southeastern South Dakota, southern Wisconsin, southern Ontario, and southwestern Maine. The A.O.U. Checklist also described Upper Pliocene fossils in Kansas, and Pleistocene fossils widely from New Mexico to Pennsylvania and Florida. The Californian turkey, Meleagris californica, is an extinct species of turkey indigenous to the Pleistocene and early Holocene of California. It became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The present Californian wild turkey population derives from wild birds re-introduced during the 1960s and 70s from other areas by game officials. They proliferated after 2000 to become an everyday sight in the East Bay Area by 2015.

At the beginning of the 20th century the range and numbers of wild turkeys had decreased due to hunting and loss of habitat. Game managers estimate that the entire population of wild turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, it was almost totally extirpated from Canada and had become localized in pockets in the United States, in the north-east effectively restricted to the Appalachians, only as far north as central Pennsylvania. Game officials made efforts to protect and encourage the breeding of the surviving wild population, and some trapped birds were relocated to new areas, including some in the western states where it was not native. There is evidence that the bird does well when near farmland, which provides grain and also berry-bearing shrubs at its edges. As wild turkey numbers rebounded, hunting became legal in 49 U.S. states (excluding Alaska). In 1973, the total U.S. population was estimated to be 1.3 million, and current estimates place the entire wild turkey population at 7 million individuals. In recent years, "trap and transfer" projects have reintroduced wild turkeys to several provinces of Canada as well, sometimes from across the border in the United States.

Attempts to introduce the wild turkey to Britain as a game bird in the 18th century were not successful. George II is said to have had a flock of a few thousand in Richmond Park near London, but they were too easy for local poachers to destroy, and the fights with poachers became too dangerous for the gamekeepers. They were hunted with dogs and then shot out of trees where they took refuge. Several other populations, introduced or escaped, have survived for periods elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, but seem to have eventually died out, perhaps from a combination of lack of winter feed and poaching. Small populations, probably descended from farm as well as wild stock, in the Czech Republic and Germany have been more successful, and there are wild populations of some size following introductions in Hawaii and New Zealand.

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