We’re used to a factory-raised turkey roasted, carved up and laying on dinner plates. It’s easy to forget there are Wild Turkeys living out in, well, the wild.
Wild Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, are very different from the domestic turkeys destined to be centerpieces on about 45 million dinner tables each Thanksgiving week. Bred for size and large, meaty breasts, they’re so heavy they can’t lift themselves off the ground into flight. Most of their intelligence has become collateral damage as breeders focus only on what appeals to grocery shoppers.
Wild Turkeys, on the other hand, are birds to be reckoned with. Not only are they sleek, smart and cunning, they can run at 25 miles per hour and fly at 55 miles per hour. They can swim, too! (You may have heard that Benjamin Franklin wanted to name the Wild Turkey as the U.S. national bird, but that’s a myth, according to Smithsonian.com.)
Unlike turkeys on factory farms who exist on corn, feed mixes and daily doses of antibiotics to make them fat, Wild Turkeys get to enjoy acorns, nuts, wild berries, fruits and insects. Their average life span is about 3 years, but they can live up to 10 years or more (a banded one lived 13 years). Factory turkeys, on the other hand, are slaughtered at about 5 months.
Every wondered what’s up with all the strange stuff on their head and neck? So have scientists! They have names for those messy-looking bits, but don’t really know if they’re mainly for show or play some additional role. The red and white growths on the head and neck are called caruncles. The long, fleshy bit hanging over the beak is a snood. The red flap of skin that hangs down from their neck is a dewlap (or wattle).
Courting males dramatically display themselves with ruffled feathers and fanned-out tail feathers. The caruncles, snood, wattle, and bare skin on the head and neck become engorged with blood, and their head turns blue. That is, unless they’re squaring off for a fight, then it turns red. They also have a “beard,” which is a long cluster of feathers hanging from the center of their chest (females sometimes have beards, too.) Males are known for their loud gobbling sound, capable of being heard a mile away. Females can gobble, too, but rarely do.
Wild Turkeys are large, plump and powerful, with males weighing up to 24 pounds and standing 3 – 3 1/2 feet tall. Their senses are superb, with hearing 10 times better than people and sharp, nearly 360-degree vision. They’re irregularly migratory, socially complex birds who travel in flocks. They roost in trees at night, but spend most of their day on the ground. They communicate often with each other; hens even cluck at their chicks while they’re still in the eggs. Chicks know their mother’s voice before they hatch and are ready to listen and move about with her soon after hatching.
Wild Turkeys were gone from much of the U.S. by the early 1900s due to overhunting and loss of woodlands. They’ve since rebounded because of successful reintroduction programs and now inhabit all states, except Alaska. Their preferred habitat is a mix of agricultural land, shrubland, woodland and seasonal marsh.
Wild Turkeys live in cities, too, wherever there are yards bordering suitable turkey habitat. Not everyone welcomes them, because of their messy droppings and roosting in inconvenient places. Sometimes they damage property. Also, males can be aggressive. If you want to discourage them from your yard, keep birdseed swept up, or even stop feeding birds for two weeks. You can also chase, yell or spray them with a hose to force them move on. Or, just enjoy them for the amazing birds that they are!