The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a chiefly terrestrial bird that is widely distributed throughout North America from Canada to Mexico. M. gallopavo is distinguished by a massive fan-shaped tail, naked head and caruncle attached to its bill. Although the species has a large population, numbers are being eroded by deforestation, overgrazing and reliance on even-aged timber management.
The Wild Turkey is associated with certain ceremonial events, notably Thanksgiving in the USA and Canada. The species was specifically named by Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony as a centerpiece of the early Thanksgiving celebrations, noting that this bird was present in the forests "in great store".
Subspecies and distribution
There are at least six recognizable subspecies. M.g. silvestris (Eastern Wild Turkey) occurs in Ontario, Quebec, southeast Manitoba and Canada's maritime provinces and extends to some of the upper midwest and northeast USA Upper tail coverts exhibit reddish brown ends. M.g osceola (Osceola) is a more diminutive and darker plumaged taxon and is found only in Florida. M.g. merriami (Merriam's) ranges through the continental divide of the USA and manifests white tips to the tail and wing plumage. M.g. intermedia (Rio Grande) has a greenish sheen to body plumage and is found throughout the western USA from California to Utah. M.g mexicana (Gould's) occurs in Arizona and New Mexico as far south as central Mexico. Gould's is the largest of all subspecies and exhibits copper to greenish- gold colors. M.g. gallopavo (South Mexican), found only from Jalisco to Guerrero, Mexico, was the original subspecies to be domesticated by the Aztecs.
Diminutive Osceola subspecies, Florida. @ Kirsten Walquist This strong legged bird has distinctive snood, caruncles and dewlap features adorning his face and neck. The head and upper neck are almost devoid of feathers, while ear openings are covered with bristle feathers. Frontal caruncles are much more bulbous in the male. Female color is more drab with dull brown breast tips and gray-blue crown The gobbler snood is more prominent and the neck is more elongated. The gobbler also exhibits a beard structure at lower neck, a white crown and black tips on breast feathers. Plumage color varies by region and sex, spanning the spectrum of sometimes iridescent gold, green, copper and bronze.(Dickson) There are rigid primary feathers, 18 or 19 feathers and typically 18 tail quills. Gobblers can attain a height above 100 centimeters (cm), whilst hens may reach 75 cm.
This species is chiefly herbivorous, with adaptive terrestrial foraging for a wide variety of nuts, seeds, fruits, but also able to consume many arthropods scratched from the soil surface. This flexible consumption pattern helps to explain the wide distribution of M. gallopavo. Territories have been defined as the area required to support one female, even though a flock usually contains more than one hen. Wide differences in territorial size are presented in the literature, with a range of 1.6 to 121 hectares per female, depending on resource density (Thomas) Seasonal migration of 40 to 80 kilometers can be realized. (Hewitt)
A dominant male gathers a harem of five or more females. Breeding is correlated with lengthening of days, with the peak of breeding season being between March and June (later times for higher latitudes). During breeding season the tom's caruncles enlarge as well as spongy upper breast tissue; these may serve as a nutrition reservoir, since little feeding is done in this season.
Clutches of five to 18 eggs are deposited in shallow earth depression nests, with subsequent incubation of 28 days.(Johnsgard) The hen tends the eggs and young, with the male playing no role. Later the brood may stay with their mother as late as the following spring, although the precocial chicks may fly and roost on their own at age one week.
M. gallopavo at first flees from predators by striding quickly through open forests, being able to obtain a ground speed of at least three to four meters per second; flight ensues when the predator is closer, with the bird being able to attain air speeds of at least ten meters per second, typically sustainable for less than 100 meters
Deep river canyon habitat with oak cover, southern Utah. @ C.Michael Hogan
A major limitation to flight distance is the presence of forest canopy restricting likely flight paths. Ideal habitat of the Wild Turkey is somewhat open forest or savanna, with proximity to surface water. It is especially important to have an age distributed forest to provide dead branches and varying height branches for roosting and for landing when in flight from predators. An example of ideal habitat is mixed oak woodland on lower slopes of mountains, thus affording water proximity and abundant acorn foodstock. For example, the lower slopes of the Pacific Coastal Ranges which have a high percentage of California Black Oak would be expected to be a superior habitat, (Hogan) as borne out by observation.
- James G. Dickson. 1992. The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management, National Wild Turkey Federation, United States Forest Service, Stackpole Books, 463 pages ISBN 081171859X
- C.H. Thomas. 1954. Management implication os the social and spatial behavior of wild turkeys, Oklahoma Coop. Wild..Res. Unit, Norman Prog. Rep. 7:4-11
- O.H. Hewitt, ed. 1967. The Wild Turkey and its Management, The Wildlife Soc., Washington DC, 589 pages
- C.Michael Hogan. 2008. California Black Oak, GlobalTwitcher, ed. N. Stromberg http://www.globaltwitcher.com/artspec.asp?thingid=82385
- P.A. Johnsgard. 1973. Grouse and Quails of North America, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Neb., 553 pages
- William DeLoss Love. 1895. The fast and thanksgiving days of New England (Google eBook) Houghton, Mifflin. 607 pages
Antique print of artist's perception of wild turkeys