Bird of the Month: Wild Turkey
By Hugh Jennings
Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
Length 46 in
Wingspan 64 in
Weight 16.2 lbs (7400 g)
AOU Band code WITU
The Wild Turkey being a wary bird and considered a “bird of courage” by Benjamin Franklin is very different from its domesticated relative (Alderfer). Franklin thought so highly of it that he hoped it would become the national bird, but, alas it lost by one congressional vote to the Bald Eagle. Overhunting and loss of habitat in the 19th and early 20th Centuries led to severe population decline. However, intensive conservation efforts have reintroduced the Wild Turkey into areas of open oak woodlands where acorns are its favorite food. There are scattered populations of Wild Turkeys in Eastern Washington.
The Wild Turkey is in the genus Meleagris from the Greek, meleagris, the guineafowl. Its species name is from the Latin gallo, farmyard cock, and pavo, a peacock. The reference is to the physical appearance (Holloway). Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) is credited, or possibly blamed, for naming this bird. At the time the guineafowl was being called a turkey in the mistaken belief that it came from Turkey (Holloway). The bird is endemic to North America with four subspecies in the United States. The Eastern Turkey M. g. sylvestris is the most widespread of the four. In Washington Merriams’s Turkey M. g. merriami will be seen. This subspecies is named for C. Hart Merriam (1890-1938), the director of the Biological Survey Division who collaborated with President Theodore Roosevelt in establishing the first wild bird reservations.
The Wild Turkey is unmistakable in the field. Its small head, long neck and long legs seem oddly attached to its plump body. It is much slimmer than the familiar domesticated turkey. The Wild Turkey’s feathers are a dark, iridescent greenish-bronze (Eaton). The flight feathers and tips of the tail feathers are barred with white. The head and neck have exposed blue-grey skin, the lower portion of which turns pink in the male. The male also has red wattles and sports a black breast tuft or beard. The bill is yellow. The legs are featherless with exposed spurs and very strong. Turkeys will often choose to run from danger. When pressed they will fly and after a running start they can fly strongly, reaching a speed of nearly 60 mph (Eaton). Their longest flight is about one mile, but most of the time they will fly a short distance and coast.
The spurs are used to fight off other males as they compete to attract females. In spring males will gobble early in the day, puff out their chest feathers, spread their tails, and strut as they seek a number of females with whom to mate. The nest is generally a shallow depression on the ground at the base of a tree or under a shrub. Usually there are 10-15 ovate, brown-dotted, whitish eggs deposited. Incubation is by the female only and lasts about a month (Kaufman). The poults leave the nest in a few days and feed themselves. In about two weeks they begin short flights.