Meleagris gallopavowild turkey

Geographic Range

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are one of the most widely distributed game bird species in North America. They are found throughout most of the eastern United States, and in pockets throughout the western United States. They are also found in parts of northern Mexico, particularly in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Wild turkeys have been introduced to Germany and New Zealand. (Eaton, 1992)


Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. (Eaton, 1992)

Physical Description

Wild turkeys are large, ground-dwelling birds with long legs, long necks and large fan-shaped tails. They have short, rounded wings. Male wild turkeys have dark, iridescent plumage. Their flight feathers are black with brown stripes and are barred with white. They have a red wattle (a fleshy lobe that hangs down from the chin or throat), a caruncle (a wart-like projection of skin attached to the upper part of the forehead), and a blackish breast tuft. Their pink, pinkish-gray, or silver-gray legs have spurs which can grow as long as 3.2 cm. The heads of adult males (called gobblers) are red, blue, or white depending on the season.

Female wild turkeys (called hens) are smaller and duller than males. Most females do not have a breast tuft. Females have a grayish head and a feathered neck.

Male turkeys weigh 6.8 to 11 kg. Hens usually weigh 3.6 to 5.4 kg. Weight varies considerably with time of year and resource availability.

There are six subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo. These subspecies differ in size, plumage and distribution. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • ornamentation
  • Range mass
    3.6 to 11 kg
    7.93 to 24.23 lb


Wild turkeys are polygynous. Males attempt to attract females by "gobbling" and "strutting" with their tail fanned out, their wings lowered and dragging on the ground, their back feathers erect, their head thrown back and their crop inflated. The gobbles of male wild turkeys can be heard more than 1.5 kilometers away (or approximately 1 mile). (Eaton, 1992)

Wild turkeys breed in early spring; southern populations begin courtship in late January and northern populations begin in late February. They raise one brood per season. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground, usually surrounded by dense brush, vines, tangles, deep grass, or fallen tree tops. The female scratches out the nest and lays 4 to 17 (usually 8 to 15) eggs. She incubates the eggs for 25 to 31 days. The chicks are precocial, and are able walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching. The female broods the chicks at night for the first 2 weeks after hatching. She also defends them from predators, sometimes pursuing hawks or other predators. The young turkeys (called poults) stay with the female parent through the fall (males) or the early spring (females). Turkeys are capable of breeding at about 10 months old, though young males are typically not successful in competing with older males for mates during their first spring.

Egg dumping (laying eggs in another female's nest) is common in this species. This species is also known to lay eggs in the nests of ruffed grouse. Ring-necked pheasants are known nest parasites of wild turkeys. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Breeding interval
    Wild turkeys breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    Courtship begins in early spring (January to February).
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 17
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    25 to 31 days
  • Range fledging age
    24 (high) hours
  • Range time to independence
    4 to 10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    365 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    365 days

Male wild turkeys do not provide any parental care. Female wild turkeys prepare the nest, incubate the eggs, and care for the young until the next spring (fall for male poults). The chicks are precocial, and are able to walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female


The average life expectancy for wild turkeys is estimated at 1.3 to 1.6 years. The oldest known wild turkey lived at least 13 years. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    13 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1.3 to 1.6 years


Wild turkeys are diurnal and non-migratory. By day, they can be seen grazing in fields and woodlands. At night, they roost in trees.

Wild turkeys are generally wary, and have keen eyesight and hearing. They are swift runners and fast fliers. Turkeys have been recorded flying at 88.5 km/h.

Turkeys are social. During the winter, they form bands in which dominance hierarchies may develop. In some populations, each band may defend a territory against other bands. (Eaton, 1992)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range of this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

Wild turkeys use vocalizations and physical displays to communicate. For example, during the spring, males will fan out their tails, strut and "gobble" in an attempt to attract and retain a harem of females. Biologists recognize at least 15 different wild turkey vocalizations, including the widely recognized "gobble". The "gobble" is give primarily by males with the purpose of attracting females and repelling competing males. Other vocalizations are used by both sexes to communicate a variety of messages. (Eaton, 1992)

Food Habits

Wild turkeys are omnivorous. They primarily eat vegetable matter such as acorns, nuts, seeds, buds, leaves and fern fronds. They also eat ground-dwelling insects and salamanders, which account for about 10% of their diet. Wild turkeys forage primarily on the ground, though they occasionally mount shrubs and low trees to reach fruits and buds. Most foraging occurs during the 2 to 3 hours after dawn and before dusk. (Eaton, 1992)

  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Predators of wild turkey eggs and nestlings include raccoons, opossums, striped skunks, grey foxes, birds, woodchucks, rodents, spotted skunks, bobcats, rat snakes and bull snakes.

Humans are the primary predator of adult wild turkeys. Other predators include coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, golden eagles, and great horned owls. (Eaton, 1992)

Ecosystem Roles

Wild turkeys provide food for their predators and impact populations of the plants whose seeds and nuts they eat.

Wild turkeys also host at least 60 different species of parasites. These include 9 protozoans, 11 trematodes, 10 cestodes, 1 acanthocephalan, 17 nematodes and 12 arthropods. (Eaton, 1992)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Wild turkeys are one of the most popular game bird species in the United States. Turkey hunting brings millions of dollars to states' Departments of Natural Resources, as well as to public and private organizations each year. Conservation efforts may benefit from turkey hunting through habitat improvement projects. Numerous organizations work to keep wild turkeys plentiful throughout the country.

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of wild turkeys on humans.

Conservation Status

Wild turkeys are plentiful and are widespread. Many states are starting to introduce them into previously uninhabited areas, increasing their range and distribution. Current estimates of wild turkey populations are around 4 million in North America (Dickson, 1995).

Wild turkeys are not legally protected. In fact, they are hunted in many states.


Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jason McCullough (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


Davis, H. 1949. The American Wild Turkey. SC: Small Arms Technical Company.

Dickson, J. 1995. "Return of Wild Turkeys" (On-line). U.S. Geological Survey: Our Living Resources. Accessed March 12, 2006 at

Eaton, S. 1992. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, P Stettenheim, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 22. Philadelphia, PA: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Hewitt, O. 1967. The Wild Turkey and its Management. Washington, DC: The Wildlife Society.

McIlhenny, E. 1914. The Wild Turkey and its Hunting. Garden City: Doubleday, Page and Co.

National Geographic Society, 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society.

Steward, D., G. Hurst. 1998. "Mississippi State University Extension Service--Wild Turkey" (On-line). Accessed 03/17/04 at

Williams, L. 1981. The Book of the Wild Turkey. Tulsa: Winchester Press.