American Turkey

Largest Upland Game Bird in North America

American Turkey

Largest Upland Game Bird in North America

In the late 1770s, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the turkey should be the symbol for the fledgling United States. He argued that the bald eagle was no better than a pirate and a fish-eater (mostly true). The American turkey lost to the bald eagle by a single congressional vote.



Native Americans in the Southwest and Mexico kept turkeys for feathers and food, and the birds, with their alarm calls, probably were good "watch dogs" as well. The Indians used their feathers in ceremonies, and they twisted and plaited the feathers with twine to form blankets. They hollowed out the large leg bones to serve as whistles.

The Spaniards are credited with transporting wild turkeys from Mexico to Europe for domestication in the 16th century. European settlers brought domesticated turkeys back to the New World. Ironically, regional declines of wild turkeys paralleled the European settlers’ spread across America. Today, extensive re-introduction programs are underway to return the five subspecies of wild turkeys to their native habitats. Habitat improvements often accompany these re-introductions, as well.

American Turkey walking

Turkeys are the largest upland game bird in North America. They are 36 to 48 inches long, with four- to five-foot wingspans. Males average ten inches longer than females. For males, the head is featherless, and the upper neck is red to blue, purple or white. A fleshy snood or leader, projects from the forehead above the bill. Body plumage is brilliant metallic bronze with gold, red and green reflections. In poor light, the turkeys appear brownish. A reddish beard hangs from the midbreast and may reach 10 to 12 inches long. Both males and females have stout legs. The males have a spur on each leg that curves upwards, and it may be an inch long on older adults. Wings have barred black and white feathers. Females are paler and buffier, and the beard is short.

Range and Habitats

In precolonial times, the American turkey was abundant throughout the United States. The turkey population, including five subspecies, crashed primarily because of excessive hunting and habitat loss. Due to reintroductions, turkeys are reoccurring in many of their historic haunts.

Turkeys inhabit a variety of habitats from open grassland and fields to open woodlands and mature deciduous or coniferous forests. They will roost in large flocks in trees.

Three American Turkeys


Turkeys forage on the ground, scratching for seeds, nuts, acorns, grains, grass seeds, insects and even small vertebrates such as frogs, salamanders, lizards or snakes. Diets are regional and associated with the habitat type in which the turkey occurs. Turkeys have powerful gizzards (the muscular stomach that serves the same purpose as jaws and teeth in mammals), which can crush hard objects. They ingest small stones or grit to assist in the grinding process of food.


Besides the standard gobble call of the male turkey, other calls can be heard in the flock. A cluck or cut call may assemble a group. There is a putt or pert alarm call, and a contact call that sounds like a yelp – keouk-keouk-keouk.

American Turkey breeding


Courtship and breeding start in late February or early March in the southern U. S. (later in the north) and last until May or mid-June. Courtship flocking lasts about three weeks. Sexes often separate in winter, with flock size ranging from 40 to 500 birds, depending upon location. Though males may call (gobble) anytime during the year, the calls are louder in the breeding season and may be prompted by a host of sounds, for instance, overhead planes, slamming of a car door, radio, etc. Gobbling sounds may carry a long way in open terrain, sometimes up to a mile. In the flocks of females, males strut around gobbling and fluffing their feathers, erecting their tail feathers, swelling their head ornaments and dropping their wings. Several males may display together, and each male may have five or six hens in his harem.


Natural depressions near wooded areas or at the edges of fields are used for nests. This scrape is lined with leaves or grasses and an average of 10 to 12 whitish eggs are laid. The egg laying process may take up to 15 to 18 days.


The female incubates the eggs although she may leave the nest to attack an intruder. The female starts to incubate once the last egg is laid. Incubation lasts 27 to 28 days. After hatching, the hen leads the chicks away from the nest within 24 to 28 hours. The young, called poults, cannot fly until they are about two weeks old. The female will brood the young during cold periods. First-year males are called "jakes."

The genus name Meleagris (mel-e-AY-gris) is from a Latin word for guineafowl and from the Greek name Meleager (mel-e-AY-jer), the hero of the Caledonian boar hunt in Greek mythology. The species name gallopavo (gal-low-PAY-voe) is from the Latin words for a cock – gallus – and a peafowl – pavo – meaning a chickenlike peafowl or Guinea fowl (a slightly erroneous name). The family name Meleagrididae (mel-ee-ag-RID-i-dee) was first used by Linnaeus (1758). The species is also called wild turkey.

American Turkey in a tree
Turkey can fly

Curious Facts

The American turkey is famous for its wariness. The bird can run at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour, and it can fly, in short bursts, at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour, startling a predator. Turkeys have excellent vision and hearing. If they possessed a keen sense of smell, they would be almost impossibly elusive.

Two signs of turkey presence are 1) inverted V-like scratches made while foraging for food and 2) the male's scats, which are the size of a small finger with a twist at one end, resembling the letter "J." The scats are blackish brown with a white chalky tip.

The Turkey Vulture


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