Wild Turkey 101


Eastern subspecies

Wild Turkeys are omnivorous, foraging on the ground or climbing shrubs and small trees to feed. They prefer eating hard mast such as acorns, nuts, and 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 snakes. Chicks have been observed eating insects, berries, and seeds. Wild Turkeys often feed in cow pastures. They sometimes visit backyard bird feeders to search for seed 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.

Flight and calls

In flight

Wild Turkeys are surprisingly agile fliers and cunning, unlike their domestic counterparts. Turkeys are very cautious birds and will fly or run at the first sign of danger. Their ideal habitat is an open woodland or savanna, where they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than a quarter mile (400 m). 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, yelp often.

Benjamin Franklin and the US national bird

The idea that Benjamin Franklin preferred the Turkey as the national bird of the United States comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter, Sarah Bache on January 26, 1784 criticizing the choice of the Bald Eagle as the national bird and suggesting that a Turkey would have made a better alternative.

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

This letter to Franklin’s daughter was written after Congress spent six years choosing the eagle as the emblem of the newly formed country. Franklin’s disapproval with the choice of the Bald Eagle appears evident but may have been ironic, it is not apparent that he ever officially advocated for the turkey.



SingularWild Turkey



  1. A brand of bourbon whiskey from Kentucky.


  • 1994, Tim Green, Ruffians: A Novel,
    page 51

    When tie had gotten a steroid prescription then, the doctor’s
    office had been seedy and the doctor himself had smelled of
    Wild Turkey.
  • 1999, Sarah Bird, Virgin of the
    Rodeo, page 97

    She suspected that the Wild Turkey
    boilermakers the tailgaters were tippling might be the cause.
  • 2000, John Nichols, The Nirvana
    Blues, page 40.

    As soon as Joe finished his current chapter, they would drop a
    Gouda cheese and a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 into
    a knapsack, and hit the Rio Grande for a three-hour trout bout
    before dinner.
  • 2002, Ace Atkins, Dark End of the
    Street, HarperCollins, , page 288

    A place for rich men from Nashville to come out, drink some
    Wild Turkey, and raise a little hell.
  • 2002, Virginia DeBerry, Donna Grant, Far
    from the Tree, page 277

    She took a deep breath to steady herself, and her lungs filled
    with a heady mix of Chesterfields, Old Spice, Pabst Blue Ribbon,
    Dixie Peach, Wild Turkey, My Sin, fried catfish,
    barbecue, and sweat.
  • 2003, Lawrence Block, Small Town,
    page 13

    If she could leave her underwear in the living room and her
    Wild Turkey uncapped, wasting its fragrance on the
    desert air, she might well have neglected to set her clock.



There are subtle difference in the coloration of the different sub-species of Wild Turkeys. The six subspecies are:

M. g. silvestris in northern Florida

Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)

This was the turkey species first encountered in the wild by the Puritans. Range covers the entire eastern half of the United States; extending also into Southeastern Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces in Canada. They number from 5.1 to 5.3 million birds. They were first named forest turkey in 1817, and can grow up to 4 feet (1.2 m) tall. The upper tail coverts are tipped with chestnut brown. The Eastern Wild Turkey is heavily hunted in the Eastern USA and is the most hunted Wild Turkey subspecies.

Osceola Wild Turkey or Florida Wild Turkey (M. g. osceola)

Found only on the Florida peninsula. They number from 80,000 to 100,000 birds. This bird is named for the famous Seminole Chief Osceola, and was first described in 1980. It is smaller and darker than the Eastern Turkey. The wing feathers are very dark with smaller amounts of the white barring seen on other sub-species. Their overall body feathers are iridescence green-purple color.

M. g. intermedia has relatively long legs

Rio Grande Wild Turkey (M. g. intermedia)

Ranges through Texas to Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, and central and western California, as well as parts of a few northeastern states. Rio Grande Turkeys were also introduced to Hawaiʻi in the late 1950s. Population estimates for this subspecies range from 1,022,700 to 1,025,700. This sub-species is native to the central plain states. They were first described in 1879, and have relatively long legs. Their body feathers often have a green-coppery sheen to them. The tips of the tail and lower back feathers are a buff-very light tan color. Its habitats are brush areas next to streams, rivers or mesquite, pine and scrub oak forests. Rio Grande Turkeys are gregarious.

Merriam’s Wild Turkey (M. g. merriami)

Ranges through the Rocky Mountains and the neighboring prairies of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota as well as much of the high mesa country of New Mexico. They number from 334,460 to 344,460 birds. Merriam’s Turkeys live in Ponderosa Pine and mountainous regions. It was named in 1900 in honor of Clinton Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. The tail and lower back feathers have white tips. They have purple and bronze reflections.

Gould’s Wild Turkey

Gould’s Wild Turkey (M. g. mexicana)

Native from central to northern Mexico and the southern-most parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Heavily protected and regulated. First described in 1856. They exist in small numbers in the U.S. but are abundant in Northwestern portions of Mexico. A small population has been established in southern Arizona. Gould’s are the largest of the five sub-species. They have longer legs, larger feet, and longer tail feathers. The main color of the body feathers are copper and greenish-gold.

South Mexican Wild Turkey (M. g. gallopavo)

The nominate subspecies, and one of the few that is not found in the United States or Canada. The Aztecs domesticated the southern Mexican sub-species, M. g. mexicana, giving rise to the domestic turkey. The pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts brought farmed turkeys with them from England, descendants of domestic turkeys which had been brought to Europe from Mexico by the Spanish.

Social structure and mating habits

Female with chicks

Males are polygamous, they mate 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 its 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 was 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 chicks are precocial and nidifugous, leaving the nest in about 12–24 hours.
Predators of eggs and nestlings include Raccoons, Virginia Opossums, Striped Skunks, Gray foxes, raptors, Groundhogs, other rodents, spotted skunks, rat snakes, Gopher Snakes, and pinesnakes. Predators of both adults and young include Coyotes, Bobcats, Cougars, Golden Eagles and (with the exception of males) Great Horned Owls and red foxes. Humans are now the leading predator of adult turkeys.
The range and numbers of the Wild Turkey had decreased at the beginning of the 20th century 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 1900s. Game officials made efforts to protect and encourage the breeding of the surviving wild population. As Wild Turkey numbers rebounded, hunting was legalized 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.

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