Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo

by Betsy Cunningham

When the Spanish conquerors invaded Mexico in the sixteenth century, they found that the natives had large domesticated birds which would breed constantly even in captivity. These wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) are distinctively native to North America. They are found in Southern Canada, all over central and eastern North America, and parts of northern Mexico. Wild turkeys look a lot like today's domesticated turkeys, with iridescent copper and bronze feathers. These birds are related to Peafowl and Guinea fowl. Their head and neck are naked and the tail tips are chestnut. Male turkeys are larger and more colorful than female turkeys but they both have strong legs. Male turkeys usually reach sexual maturity around two years of age.

Wild turkeys today inhabit the deep forest, the borders of swampy regions, and the shores of streams and lakes. Their diets consist mainly of nuts, seeds, berries, and small insects.

During the breeding season males have thick swellings on their chests where fats and oils are stored. These are needed during extremely energetic courtship activities. Males do elaborate dances, spreading their tail fans, lowering and rattling their flight feathers, swelling their head ornaments and gobbling to their mates. Wild turkeys are polygynous meaning that the males have several mates in a breeding season.

Females lay their eggs in nests on the ground in thick tall weeds. Female turkeys usually lay nine to twelve warm yellowish white eggs, dotted reddish brown, which the female will keep incubated and protected away from the male. After the turkey chicks have hatched the female turkey stays with them through the winter while they learn basic flying technique. Then they are on their own. Turkeys can fly short distances, such as into trees for overnight protection or to avoid hunters and their dogs.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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