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By Nicole Gerber, Ph.D.
New York State Master Naturalist
This is the time of year for talking turkey, and this turkey talk will be sharing insight into the world and life of the wild turkey. Did you know that turkeys are social and affectionate, and create lasting friendships? That they recognize one another by their unique voices?
The wild turkey is native to North America, primarily located in central and eastern United States. There are five subspecies of the North American wild turkey. The name for this bird originated from the early Europeans in America. The bird reminded them of the African guinea fowl, called a “turkey bird,” because it came to Europe from Turkey.
Turkey habitat includes open woodlands, grasslands and swamps. They use nut-bearing and fruit trees and prefer forests that have mature oak and hickory trees as well as red oak, beech, cherry and white ash. They will eat berries, acorns from oaks, nuts from hickories, seeds from ash and pine, seeds from grasses and sedges, and will also eat plant matter such as tree buds, ferns, club mosses and burdock. They supplement their plant-based diet with snails, salamanders, grasshoppers, beetles and other insects. Through their foraging, they disperse seeds and eat many insects that are often characterized as a “nuisance.”
Turkeys have a home range that can span a thousand acres and they generally move a mile or two in one day, depending on the surrounding habitat and proximity to food and water. If a turkey needs to move fast, it can run at speeds up to 25 mph! They can fly up to 55 mph and at night fly into large trees to roost and to be safe from predators. They will stay together in a flock, or “gang,” and even the newly hatched turkeys, or poults, will fly up to roost at the age of about 20 days. In deep snow, they may stay in the roost for several days.
Male turkeys are called toms and can weigh between 11 and 24 pounds. At the center of their breast is a patch of coarse feathers called a beard. The female, or hen, is typically 5 to 12 pounds. Both male and female turkeys have a snood, which is a fleshy flap that hangs from the beak, as well as a wattle, which is a flap of skin located under the chin. When the male turkey gets excited or agitated, his head and neck changes colors in patriotic shades of red, white and blue.
Both males and females have approximately 5,000 to 6,000 feathers, and the males have gold, red and bronze feathers while the females have variations of brown. Being very colorful, the male uses his feathers to attract mates by fluffing and fanning out the large tail feathers. In trying to impress, he gobbles and makes non-vocal hums, his snood changes colors, and he drags his wings on the ground as he struts about. Males will breed with multiple mates during late March through June. The hens will lay anywhere from four to 17 eggs, laying one egg a day, which they will hatch in 25 to 31 days. Turkeys are born with feathers and, within 24 hours of hatching, will leave the nest with their mother to begin foraging for food. The hens take care of the poults as they age and will stay with their young for six to 12 months.
Turkeys are social animals and form sibling groups that generally persist throughout their lives. The siblings are very loyal to each other and can be hostile to outsider birds. Studies have shown that, in both wild and domestic turkeys, they have social cognition of their family and group. Males will form their groups, and hens and their poults will form groups, and several of these groups may come together in the fall if there is an area with a good food supply. There is a dominance hierarchy within and between groups that forms the structure of their community.
For their personal turkey talk, they not only gobble, but they purr, hum, cackle and cluck. Turkey vocabulary consists of 30 distinct calls. Each call has a distinct meaning and is used to communicate different situations. A male’s gobble can be heard up to a mile away and is used to communicate with the group and to warn any outsider toms to stay away from the territory.
Turkeys may be thought of as common or simple, but their physical appearance and personal and social behavior demonstrate interesting and complex characteristics. Benjamin Franklin – who was in search of symbols to represent the American ethos and exceptionalism – stated the turkey is a respectable bird and a bird of courage; the turkey had his vote for being designated the country’s national bird. As with all wildlife, the turkey should be seen for what it is: an adaptable, expressive and social animal that deserves respect for what it contributes to its environment and ecosystem.
A turkey family. (Images courtesy of the author)