During November there is a tradition that links almost all Americans. And I am not talking about the U.S. holiday, Thanksgiving.
Instead, think back to the first time you drew a turkey (or showed a child how to draw one). It’s the same process: Trace your fingers and palm on a piece of paper and fill it in with bright colors to conjure up this large bird with fanned-out feathers. This was your first wild turkey!
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), an upland game bird, is native to North America and found from southern Canada throughout the 48 contiguous states and Hawaii, and along the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range to central Mexico.
The domestic turkey, a staple of Thanksgiving feasts, was derived from wild turkeys brought to Europe from Mexico. The common name, turkey, may be attributed to the fact that the bird were transported to England through Turkey — and was first called “turkey coq” before being shortened to just “turkey.”
Wild turkeys are large birds, 36–44 inches in length. They are noted by their large, fan-shaped tails; long, pink or gray legs; short, rounded wings; and bare head and neck. Their body is covered with iridescent bronze feathers with black and white bars on their wings. In the East, the tip of the turkey’s tail is brown.
The male turkey has a tuft of feathers called a beard on his chest and an upwardly curving spur on his lower legs. His breast feathers are tipped with black and he has a bluish-gray neck and a red fleshy lobe of skin that hangs from its neck or chin called a wattle. The male’s bare head and neck is red, blue or white depending on the season
The female’s breast feathers are tipped with brown, white or gray. She doesn’t have spurs and she usually doesn’t have a beard. She has a gray head and a feathered neck. Males are usually larger than females.
Wild turkeys get around mostly by walking, though they can also run and fly. When threatened, females tend to fly while males tend to run. At sundown, turkeys fly into the trees moving upward from limb to limb to a high roost spot. They usually roost in flocks.
Courting males gobble and strut with their tails fanned to attract females. Males breed with multiple mates and form all-male flocks outside of the breeding season, leaving the chick-rearing to the females.
Wild turkeys nest on the ground in dead leaves at the bases of trees, under brush or shrubs, or occasionally in open fields. They lay four to 17 eggs that incubate for 25–31 days. Chicks are precocial, meaning they are mobile and ready to leave the nest soon after hatching. The female will feed her chicks for a day or two, then the chicks are able to forage on their own. The chicks travel in a family group with their mother, often combining with other family groups to form large flocks of young turkeys accompanied by two or more adult females.
Wild turkeys are hunted by people and preyed on by coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles and great horned owls. Nest predators include raccoons, opossums, striped skunks, foxes, woodchucks, snakes, birds and rodents.
When first encountered by colonists, wild turkeys ranged from Canada to Mexico and numbered in the millions. This was due to the plentiful habitat of hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests; access to open areas such as fields and grasslands; and a wide variety of foods including mast (the nuts and fruits of trees or bushes that is eaten by wildlife), seeds, fruits and insects.
Between the excessive loss of habitat and hunting, their numbers dwindled in the late 19th and early 20th century. Game managers estimated that the entire U.S. population of wild turkeys was as low as 30,000 by the late 1930s.
In the late 1940s, people began to successfully transplant wild-caught turkeys into other areas with suitable habitat. These transplantations allowed wild turkeys to spread to all of the lower 48 states (plus Hawaii) and parts of southern Canada.
In 2014, Partners in Flight estimated a global breeding population of 7.8 million turkeys, with about 89 percent of those birds in the United States.
Populations have rebounded in part because of maturing forests. Landowners can manage land to provide for this bird’s needs. Promoting the growth of mast-producing trees provides a vital food source especially during winter. Acorn crops can be cyclical, so it is important to promote a diversity of woodlands trees. Pine, hickory, birch, alder and American beech are great food sources for turkeys.
Small clearings near a woodlot provide crucial brooding habitat for young turkeys and are great foraging habitat for most of the year. Grassy, shrubby patches provide cover. Grassy areas may need to be mowed every few years to prevent the forest from encroaching. Creating a soft edge between field and the forest also provides better escape and cover for turkey. This can be done by planting early successional, mast-producing shrubs like viburnums, elderberry, sumac and blackberry.