How many kinds of Turkey are there, and where are they found? Where did the domestic Turkey come from?

There are only 2 "kinds" or species of turkey in the world. The best-known is the so-called "Wild Turkey" (Meleagris gallopavo). Its original range extended from southern Maine and Ontario west to central South Dakota, and south through Arizona to include all of Mexico except the southernmost and southeastern areas.

At this time, the wild turkey is found in central Mexico, all 48 contiguous states of the U.S.A., and in parts of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. Small numbers may occur in Quebec and Saskatchewan. It has also been successfully introduced to Hawaii. Several foreign introductions did not take hold. However, wild turkeys did take hold, and are found in small to moderate numbers, in the Czech Republic, West Germany, and on certain south Pacific islands.

The second species of wild turkey is the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata). This turkey is found on the Yucutan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. It may also be found in Belize and Guatemala. Males are bronze-green in color and have long spurs, no beard, peacock-like spots on the tail feathers, and pinkish growths on its blue head. They make a whistling noise instead of the clucks and gobbles of the Wild Turkey. The Latin name is sometimes given as Agriocharis ocellata.

The wild turkey was domesticated by the Aztecs and other Central American natives, probably sometimes around A.D. 500. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500's, turkeys were imported into Europe and widely bred. The birds were then brought to North America as poultry with later settlers in the 1600's. It now may be found in captivity world-wide. In some areas, domestic turkeys, hybrids between domestic and wild turkeys, or "pen-raised" turkeys may have escaped to the wild.

Are there different varieties or "Subspecies" of Wild Turkey?

A "subspecies" is a geographic race or variety of a species which differs from other races in terms of range, appearance, behavior, or genetic characteristics. Subspecies are different from "true" species in that they are not necessarily reproductively isolated from each other, and they can and often do interbreed.

There are 6 subspecies of wild turkey which have been described in the technical literature. The differences between them may be found in the References listed below. Subspecies have a 3-part Latin name, instead of the 2-part name for a species.

The 6 subspecies are:

  1. Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). This is the most common of the turkeys, and is found in the eastern half of North America from New England and southern Ontario west to Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa, and south to Texas and northern Florida. It has also been introduced to California, Oregon, and Washington, which are believed to have been outside its original range.
  2. Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola). This turkey is found only on the Florida peninsula. Recent DNA studies show this to be closely related to the eastern subspecies. It may prove to be an invalid subspecies.
  3. Gould's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana). The Gould's turkey is now rare. It is found in 7 states along the Sierra Madre mountains in central Mexico and barely enters the U.S. in Arizona and New Mexico.
  4. Merriam's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami). The Merriam's turkey is native to the mountainous pine regions of the western United States from North Dakota to Oklahoma and west to the Pacific coast. It has been introduced into non-mountainous areas of Nebraska and the west coastal states.
  5. Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia). The Rio Grande turkey is native to the river valleys of the central and southern Great Plains from South Dakota and Nebraska through Colorado and Kansas to New Mexico and Texas. It has also been introduced to the northwestern states, as well as to Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah.
  6. South Mexican wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo). This is the first-described or "nominate" subspecies of the wild turkey. It is believed to be the one from which the domestic turkey was developed.  It once inhabited southern Mexico, but is now probably extinct in the wild.

Where did the Wild Turkey get its name? Did it come from the country of Turkey?

The word "turkey" was in use well before North America and the wild turkey were discovered by Europeans. As early as the 14th century, peafowl (Pavo sp.) were called "turkey-cocks". Later, during the 17th century, guinea fowl were also called "turkey", as was the grouse-like capercallie (Tetrao urogallus) of Scotland.

Although the wild turkey, as a species, had nothing to do with the country of Turkey, it is certain that the word "turkey" derives from that land. In the Middle Ages and thereafter, "Turkey", in the broad sense, was a source of all things exotic-- spices, dyes, rare linens, and strange animals. Thus, peafowl and similar birds were called "turkeys" (even though they were not from Turkey itself) since they were associated with the Orient. This idea persisted long after it was known that the wild turkey itself came from Mexico.

It has also been suggested that "turkey" arose from the "turk, turk, turk" call of the bird, or that the name arose from the Hebrew words "tukki" or "tauas", meaning "peafowl". This latter name was allegedly used by Jewish poultry merchants who helped introduce the bird to Europe. However, this is uncertain.

What is a "Game-Farm" or "Pen-Raised" Wild Turkey?

Game breeders sometimes advertise "wild turkeys" among the stock that they sell for food, pets, or release to the wild. In some instances, these birds may merely be bronze domestic turkeys. At other times, however, these so-called "wild" turkeys are pen-raised birds of (long-ago) wild origin.


Pen-raised (sometimes called "game-farm") turkeys were developed about the turn of the 20th century, when game breeding was very popular and considered a method of restoring depleted wild populations. These turkeys derived from 3 sources: (1) removing and hatching eggs from wild nests, (2) live-trapping and keeping wild birds, and (3) cross-breeding domestic turkeys with wild turkey gobblers. The resulting birds look very much like "wild" birds, sometimes almost identically so, but they usually behave very differently. Since many of the turkey's behaviors are learned ones that are passed from the hen to her poults, these behaviors are lost in the confines of captivity. Thus, pen-raised turkeys often survive poorly when released to the wild, and often become nuisances or pests.

There is also evidence which suggests that pen-raised turkeys have a greater prevalence of diseases and parasites than wild birds, due to the close confinement under which pen-raised birds are kept. These maladies may then be spread to the wild if pen-raised birds are released or allowed to escape. Some biologists also suspect that pen-raised birds have a low level of genetic vigor, and that cross-breeding with wild birds may produce deficiencies in the wild populations.

For these reasons, most states prohibit the release of pen-raised "wild" turkeys. Some states even prohibit them from being propagated or kept at all. In Massachusetts, laws prohibit people from keeping these pen-raised turkeys without a special permit. This permit is only given for bona-fide scientific or educational purposes. Despite this, uninformed or malicious persons sometimes bring in these birds and release them or allow them to escape. There are a few places in eastern Massachusetts where small numbers of these birds became local pests. Once established, these turkeys are difficult to control without lethal means.

Are Wild Turkeys native to Massachusetts? Where are Wild Turkeys found in Massachusetts now?

At the time of Colonial settlement, wild turkeys were found nearly throughout Massachusetts. They were probably absent from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and perhaps the higher mountain areas in the northwest part of the state. As settlement progressed and land was cleared for buildings and agriculture, turkey populations diminished. By 1800, turkeys were quite rare in Massachusetts, and by 1851 they had disappeared.

Between 1911 and 1967 at least 9 attempts in 5 counties were undertaken to restore turkeys to Massachusetts. Eight failed (probably because of the use of pen-raised stock; and one established a very marginal population which persisted only with supplemental feeding.

In 1972-73, with the cooperation of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, MassWildlife personnel live-trapped 37 turkeys in southwestern New York and released them in Beartown State Forest in southern Berkshire County. By 1976, these birds had successfully established themselves and by 1978 this restoration effort was declared a success.

Beginning in 1978, MassWildlife began live-trapping turkeys from the Berkshires and releasing them in other suitable habitat statewide. Between 1979 and 1996, a total of 26 releases involving 561 turkeys (192 males, 369 females) were made in 10 counties (see the following Table and the accompanying map).


Turkey Transplants within Massachusetts 
LocationTownCountyYearNumber (Sex)
Hubbardston State ForestHubbardstonWorcester  1979, 198122 (10M, 12F) 
D.A.R. State ForestGoshenHampshire  1981-8214 (6M, 8F) 
Mt. Toby State ForestSunderlandFranklin  198222 (7M, 15F) 
Holyoke RangeGranbyHampshire 198224 (8M, 16F) 
West Brookfield State ForestWest BrookfieldWorcester  1982-8324 (12M, 12F) 
Miller's River Wildlife Management AreaAtholWorcester 1982-8324 (11M, 13F) 
Koebke RoadDudleyWorcester  198325 (7M, 18F) 
Groton Fire TowerGrotonMiddlesex 198421 (10M, 11F) 
Rocky Gutter Wildlife Management AreaMiddleboroughPlymouth 1985-8625 (12M, 13F) 
Bolton Flats Wildlife Management AreaBoltonWorcester  1986-8724 (8M, 16F) 
Naushon IslandGosnoldDukes  198722 (6M, 16F) 
John C. Phillips Wildlife SanctuaryBoxfordEssex  198821 (9M, 12F) 
Fall River-Freetown State ForestFall RiverBristol  198824 (11M, 13F) 
Baralock HillGrotonMiddlesex  198816 (5M, 11F) 
Camp Edwards Army BaseBourne/SandwichBarnstable 198918 (6M, 12F)
Jones HillAshbyMiddlesex 199020 (7M, 13F)
Whittier HillSuttonWorcester 199022 (9M, 13F)
Conant Brook ReservoirMonsonHampden 199127 (3M, 24F)
Bradley Palmer State ParkTopsfieldEssex 199118 (1M, 17F)
Hockomock Swamp and Erwin Wilder WMAWest BridgewaterPlymouth 1992-9324 (5M, 19F)
Slade's CornerDartmouthBristol 199323 (10M, 13F)
Wendell State ForestWendellFranklin 199319 (4M, 15F)
Facing Rock Wildlife Management AreaLudlowHampden  19948 (1M, 7F)
Peterson Swamp Wildlife Management AreaHalifaxPlymouth .199426 (11M, 15F)
Cape Cod National SeashoreWellfleetBarnstable 1995-9628 (5M, 23F)
Terrybrooke FarmRehobothBristol 199620 (8M, 12F)
Totals   561; (192M, 369F)


By 1996, turkeys were found in Massachusetts about everywhere from Worcester County westward, except in the immediate vicinity of Springfield and Worcester. Good populations are also now found in suitable, but more fragmented, habitats in Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, and Plymouth Counties. On Cape Cod, Barnstable County, turkeys may be found on and near the Massachusetts Military Reservation and the Cape Cod National Seashore. These birds have also moved northward from releases in Plymouth County into southern Norfolk County. On Martha's Vineyard, wild-strain birds are absent; however, feral pen-raised birds may be found over much of the island. Turkeys are absent from Nantucket and Suffolk Counties. The average statewide fall turkey population is about 18,000-20,000 birds.

Land-use changes have historically influenced the population and distribution of the wild turkey and other wildlife. Such changes will continue to affect the natural environment. For a historical perspective, see the references by Cardoza (1976) and Cronon (1983).

What is the history of the wild turkey in the United States? What is the Status of the Wild Turkey in the U.S. now?

About 1600, the wild turkey was found throughout much of eastern and central North America, from southern Ontario through at least 39 of the present states, and in Mexico. Prior to European colonization, turkeys were widely used for food, apparel, and artifacts by Native Americans. When the Europeans came, wild turkeys became an important source of food for the settlers, and were hunted year-round without the benefit of game laws. The hardwood forests were also rapidly cleared for farms, dwellings, and villages. As early as 1672, the wild turkey was considered rare in the vicinity of Boston. Turkeys began vanishing entirely from much of their original range.

Wild turkey populations were very low by about 1900, and their numbers probably bottomed out in the 1930's. However, the turn-around point was near as wildlife management grew into a science and new protection laws were passed. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 ("Pittman-Robertson Act") provided a much needed funding base for wildlife studies and restoration. Pen-raised birds were poorly suited for release, but new capture techniques provided a safe and easy means for live-capture of birds for transplanting to new areas.

By the 1950's, several states had begun extensive restoration projects to bring back the turkey to once-occupied, but now vacant, habitat. This effort accelerated in the 1960's, and spread throughout the country in the 1970's and 1980's. By the 1990's, turkeys were found in 49 of the 50 states (excepting Alaska), including states where turkeys were historically absent. The provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario also have turkey populations, either through reintroduction or natural range expansion. All these states and provinces now have sufficient turkeys to allow limited hunting of this striking game bird. Hopefully, by the year 2005, turkeys will have been introduced or reintroduced to all suitable habitat in the U.S. and Canada, so that all citizens may experience and enjoy the presence of the magnificent wild turkey.

In 1952, there were only about 320,000 turkeys in the United States. Due to stricter laws, favorable habitat changes, and vigorous restoration efforts, there were about 1,845,000 in the mid-1970's. By 1992, the combined U.S.-Canada turkey population exceeded 3.5 million and by 1999, it was over 5.4 million! The recovery and restoration of the wild turkey is one of the great successes of modern wildlife management.

How do you identify male and female turkeys?

Adult birds (1 year or older), especially in the spring, may be differentiated as follows:

(1) Size: males are about 11/2-2 times larger than females, but this characteristic is only useful when the two are seen together.

(2) Body Color: males appear dark-- often blackish-- and are more iridescent than females, while hens are browner and less iridescent. Note that the breast feathers of males are black-tipped, while those of females are tipped with a buffy brown. From a distance, these colorations may depend on viewing conditions and your perceptions.

(3) Head and Neck: Males usually have a white-crowned head, and a blue and/or red head. The dewlap (throat wattle) is red and larger than in the female. The neck and head have heavy, prominent warts or "caruncles". The dewlap, wattles, head and neck of the male swell and become more brightly colored in the breeding season or when the male is otherwise excited. Some hens show a reddish or pink dewlap and caruncles, but the caruncles are always smaller than in the male. Hens don't show the extensive engorging and swelling that is evident in sexually excited males. In the field, these head and neck characteristics are often the best means to distinguish adult male and female turkeys.


(4) Beard: Adult males almost always have a "beard" (a tuft of stiff horny filaments projecting outward from the center of the bread). This beard often wears off or breaks off as it becomes longer, rarely exceeding 12 inches in length. The beard is a good distinguishing character when the breast is clearly visible. Some males may have more than one beard. Young males ("jakes") may have short beards that are not always evident in the field. Also, some hens (1% to 30%) in some areas may have beards (est. 1-2% in MA) but these beards are usually thinner and shorter than in males. Bearded hens are not freaks or hermaphrodites and they are capable of breeding and laying fertile eggs.

(5) Spur: Males have a distinctive sharp projection ("spur") on the rear of the metatarsus (lower leg). It can get to be 2 inches long, but anything over 1 inch is large. Hens very rarely have spurs. Spurs are a useful characteristic when the bird is in hand, but not very visible under field conditions.

(6) Behavior: In the spring, adult males often display (fan their tail) and strut. They may also beat or drum their wings, and gobble and cluck. Hens may occasionally display, but typically do not strut or gobble. They may make clucking or yelping sounds.

(7) Droppings: the sex of turkeys may also be distinguished (fall through spring) by the appearance of the bird's droppings. See the paper by R.W. Bailey in the Journal of Wildlife Management (1956) (see also Question #20).

The two sexes may be told apart at about 4 months of age, using differences in height, feather coloration and patterning, and head and neck. In the fall, the sexes of juvenile turkeys may be told apart as follows (for adult birds, see above):

(1) Size: males are generally larger and taller than females, but this isn't as discrete as for adults. This character is generally only useful with experience, or when both sexes are seen clearer close together.

(2) Body Color: as with adults, males are generally blacker and darker, and hens lighter and browner. This isn't always apparent, especially in dim light.

(3) Head and Neck: this is usually the best field character. Males have pinkish or reddish skin around the eyes and on the throat, generally bare skin on the back of the head and neck, and small (usually red) warts and caruncles on the neck. Juvenile hens have a bluish-gray head and neck, more feathering than males on the back of the head and neck, and rarely any warts or caruncles.

(4) Beard and Spur: juvenile males may have a short beard, but this can be concealed in the breast feathers. Not a good field character, but it may be apparent if the bird is in hand. Young hens (even bearded ones) don't have a visible beard. Juvenile males don't show an actual spur, but may have a 1/8 inch or so "bump".

How do you tell the age of turkeys?

Turkeys are most easily grouped into 2 age categories-- juveniles (juvenals), which are less than 1 year old, and adults, which are 1 year or older. "Poults" (sometime erroneously called "chicks") are newly-hatched baby turkeys. They are often called "poults" throughout the first few months of life. Juvenile male turkeys are colloquially called "jakes" and juvenile females, "jennies". Adult males are often called "toms" or "gobblers" and adult females are referred to as "hens".

Aging Methods:

(1) Tail Feathers: Young turkeys, from about 4-5 months of age until their second autumn, can be determined from older turkeys by the molting pattern of the large tail feathers. These feathers are called "retrices" (singular, "retrix"). These feathers are molted from the outside inward from both sides at once. In the bird's first fall and until spring, the center 4-6 feathers will be longer than the outside ones because of a partial molting pattern. By the second fall, the molt has caught up and the retrices will be all the same length. That is, in the first fall and the spring thereafter, these juvenile birds will show an uneven tail pattern when the retrices are spread out. The center feathers will protrude a few inches beyond the outside ones.


(2) Wing Feathers: The outer wing feathers (9th and 10th "primary" feathers, counting from the outside of the wing inward) show a distinct pattern in juvenile birds as compared to adults. In the first fall, these 2 primary feathers are not replaced in the molt. They are pointed, dark near the tip, and show little or no white barring. In adults, in which these feathers are molted along with the others, the 9th and 10th primaries are rounded near the tip (or worn down, if from a strutting male) and have white barring all the way to the tip.

(3) Spur: For adult males, spur length is somewhat useful in determining age, but it is not an absolute character. Generally, a spur less than 1/2-inch represents a juvenile bird, with those 1/2 to 7/8 inch from 1-year-old birds, and those 7/8 inch and larger are from birds 2 years or older.

(4) Beard: Beards may also show a differentiation by age, with 3 to 5 inch ones from 1-year-old birds ("jakes"), 6 to 9" from 2-year-olds, and 10" or larger from gobblers aged 3 years or more. The reliability of this aging method is also somewhat suspect, though, as beards often wear off or break.

(5) Leg Color: The color of the lower leg (metatarsus) can provide a rough indication of age. Young birds have a considerable amount of dark pigment in the leg and foot scales, producing a brownish or gray color. As the birds age, this pigmentation is lost and the leg color turns more pinkish or reddish.

(6) Other: Young birds up to 7 months old may be aged in the hand using specialized data on leg length, the molting of the primary feathers, and body weight. Aside from that, the only way to age a turkey with certainty (beyond differentiating juveniles from adults) is if the turkey is banded.

Do turkeys mate for life?  Do they live by themselves or in groups?

Wild turkeys do not mate for life. They do not even maintain a pair bond for one season. Breeding is promiscuous and the "gobblers" (adult males) will breed with as many hens as possible during the mating period.

Courtship activity begins when birds are concentrated in large flocks in the wintering areas, perhaps as early as late February. These flocks are organized in a dominance hierarchy or "pecking order". The highest ranking bird dominates all others, and so on down the line. Generally, adults are dominant over juveniles. So-called "jakes", or immature male turkeys, are physiologically capable of breeding, but may be intimidated from doing so by adults. Turkeys do not defend territories, or particular pieces of habitat. They fight among each other for status and dominance. Rio Grande turkeys may use "leks" or specific strutting grounds. The male's primary courtship behaviors are the "gobble" and the "strut". Gobbling serves to attract hens, but may also attract other males. Perhaps the other males seek to challenge the gobbler's dominance. In the Northeast, the peak of gobbling (and hence mating) ranges from the latter part of April to early May. Male turkeys play no role in nesting or rearing of the young.

The newly-hatched brood centers its life around the hen, vocally keeping them in touch with her. By about 8 to 10 weeks, the hen recognizes her young individually. By about 3 to 8 weeks, different broods may mingle, but this probably depends on the personalities of the hens. After the poults develop their own pecking order, this intermingling may become more complicated. It is believed that large fall flocks of many birds are temporary groups centered around an abundant food source. By fall, pecking orders have been established and flock stability has largely been established. During winter, especially in northern areas, several flocks may band together temporarily at traditional wintering sites. Some of these flocks may exceed 150 birds; however, groups this size are usually unstable and break up into smaller groups. One-year-old and older males may form their own flocks, often comprised of related birds. During winter, these males may intermingle with the larger hen-brood flocks. Some old males may also be solitary over most of the year.

How many eggs and young do wild turkeys have?

For the purposes of this question, let's talk about the Eastern wild turkey only. There are a number of terms which are related to reproductive behavior. These terms are defined below and the appropriate values given. We need to understand these terms and the concepts they imply in order to understand the reproduction of the wild turkey and how reproduction influences the population.


"Clutch size" means the number of eggs in a "clutch" or group of eggs. This refers to the total number of eggs in the clutch after the hen has stopped laying her eggs. For the first 1 to 3 eggs, hens may skip a day between eggs. From egg #4 onward, eggs are generally laid daily. Eggs are usually laid in mid-day. Hens will renest if the first nest is destroyed. However, the clutch size for the second nest is often smaller than the first. Clutch sizes may occasionally-- but not always-- differ between adult and juvenile hens. Clutch size for first nests in eastern North America have averaged from 10.3 to 12.6 eggs and 8.0 to 11.9 for renests. In western Massachusetts, clutch size for first nests averaged 12.1.

"Incubation period" is generally defined as the period from the beginning of continuous incubation to the time the hen leaves the nest with the young. Continuous incubation lasts about 26 days, but the "incubation period" may range from 25 to 29 days. This variation probably relates to the clutch size, the length of time the hen spends laying, and how long she remains on the nest after the poults hatch.

"Hatching success" is often defined as the proportion of eggs (fertile or non-fertile) that hatch in successful nests (i.e., nests in which at least 1 egg hatches). This has ranged from 80 to 92% in a number of studies and was 84% in western Massachusetts.

"Nesting rate" means the number of females in the breeding population which exhibit incubation behavior. This has averaged from 87 to 100% (for adults) in various studies and was 92% in western Massachusetts (adults, 100%; juveniles, 81%). "Renesting rate" is the number of turkeys which lost their first nests or broods which nested again that same year. This has averaged 32 to 67% for adults in eastern and central North America, and 57% in western Massachusetts.

"Hen success" is a more complex concept. It includes first-nest success, renesting rate, and renest success. Basically, it is the proportion of hens that are successful (i.e., hatch at least 1 live poult) in at least 1 nesting attempt. This has averaged 35 to 80% for adults throughout the eastern wild turkey's range. In western Massachusetts, this averaged 68%.

Turkey poults are "precocial", like grouse chicks and ducklings. That is, their eyes are open, they have a warm downy plumage, and they are capable of responding to the hen and following her about within about 1 day after hatching. Immediately after hatching, the poults undergo a very rapid form of learning and social development called "imprinting" which fixates them on the hen, so they respond to her and her calls. Imprinting must occur with 24 hours post-hatching and is irreversible. This learning is essential for survival and normal social development. However, turkeys are not born with a mental image of their kind. They can and will imprint on the first animal that provides parental care, including chickens or humans. In those cases, the imprinted young will behave "normally" but will direct their behaviors to the foster parent.

Finally, we need to consider "poult mortality". This is normally defined as the proportion of poults dying within 14 days of hatching. This is the period of time when the greatest amount of mortality occurs. In several studies, this has averaged from 56 to 73% (that is, that percentage of the brood which dies within the 2-week period). In Massachusetts, poult mortality was 62%. For a 4-week period (i.e., 4 weeks post-hatch) poult mortality in several studies averaged 53 to 76%. This was not calculated in the Massachusetts study.

After the hatching period, we need to know about survival and mortality within a turkey population, in order to better understand annual and seasonal losses (mortality) and the causes of these losses. The most accurate method of determining survival rates is through the live-capture of turkeys and equipping them with radio-telemetry packs. By using these data, and performing mathematical calculations, we can determine seasonal and annual survival rates, cause-specific mortality rates, and causes of death. This is important to the management of wild turkey populations. However, despite many years of study, there are still unknown areas. We don't yet know if survival or recruitment (the number of new females reaching breeding age) are influenced by "density-dependent" factors, how hunting mortality affects annual survival rates, or what the survival of poults between 1 month of age and their first winter really is.

What kind of a nest does the wild turkey make?


Wild turkeys are ground-nesting birds, like ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail. Basically, the hen merely scrapes a shallow depression in the soil or ground litter and lays her eggs there. This depression is probably formed inadvertently in the act of squatting and egg-laying rather than as a deliberate act. There may be some twigs, leaves, or feathers in the nest, but these too occur by accident.

Nesting habitat, rather than the actual nest itself, is important to nesting success.  Nesting and brood habitat are among the most important habitat features of the wild turkey's range.

Can wild turkeys fly?


Wild turkeys can and do fly. Although these birds may sometimes weigh over 25 pounds, their strong muscles and wings allow them powerful flight over short distances. However, adults rarely fly with continuous wingbeats for more than about 1/8 mile. When gliding with periodic wingbeats-- such as flying downslope-- turkeys can fly about 1 mile without difficulty. Their flight speed has been estimated as up to 55 to 60 mph. By nature, however, turkeys are "cursorial" (running) birds and they prefer to move about and escape on foot except when startled or severely chased.

The young poults learn to fly at about 8 to 10 days. At that time, they begin to roost with the hen in trees. Before attaining "flight status", the hen and poults stay together on the ground at night. This may make them more susceptible to predators.

Turkeys do not migrate or fly south for the winter. Although they may use somewhat different habitats or areas at different seasons of the year, Eastern wild turkeys generally stay with a radius of a few miles over the year's time. The Rio Grande and Merriam's turkeys may use a somewhat larger area.

What kinds of sounds do turkeys make?

Turkeys have quite a sophisticated array of calls and vocal sounds. Each call has a particular meaning, but variations in notes, note length, and pitch may allow more complex messages to be given. The meaning of the call is modified by other factors. The context of the call, the actions and behavior of the bird, and the delivery of the call are all involved in the ultimate meaning of the vocalization. In some instances, the same call-- at least to human ears-- may produce different responses among the turkeys hearing it. There is individual variation and turkeys are capable of recognizing the voices of other turkeys.

There are at least 28 different known calls or vocalizations produced by the wild turkey. The "gobble" is perhaps that call which is most familiar to the lay person. Other calls may include "yelps", "clucks", "putts", "cackles", "purrs", "hoots", and "hisses". Calls may serve to identify the individual which is calling, advertise the caller's sex or age or dominance status, establish control of a territory, call a mate, reassemble a scattered flock, give instructions to the young, indicate possible danger, keep the flock together, adjust distances between flock-mates, and intimidate predators.

Turkey hunters use artificial calls or "callers" as an aid to draw turkeys close to them. There are a wide range of commercial and home-made callers available. Some callers are easy to use and others require more expertise. Callers are also used to bring birds in close for photography, or to study turkeys when doing brood counts for population monitoring.

Turkeys are rather moderately-lived birds compared to long-lived species such as some hawks, gulls, and waterfowl. Overall, the mortality rate of turkeys during the first 2 weeks of life is about 70%, though longevity increases after this critical time period. The average turkey probably lives to about 11/2 years of age. Individuals may live longer, but any turkey over 6 years old is definitely an "old-timer". Based on a banded bird, the oldest known eastern turkey (coincidentally from Massachusetts) was at least 15 years old at death. Rio Grande turkeys have lived to 14, Florida turkeys to 13, and Merriam's turkeys to 91/2 years of age.

What are the enemies or predators of turkeys?


Predators and prey have evolved together over eons. Depending on the situation, predators can diminish or regulate prey populations, maintain stability, increase a population's fitness by eliminating unfit individuals, or maintain wildness and alertness of the prey. Predators generally take those individuals which are most vulnerable. This usually-- but not always-- means those which are weak, sick, diseased, or feeble. Predators are usually opportunistic-- taking those prey species which are most abundant or most vulnerable-- but also may choose particular favorites if they can easily do so. The prey species often produce more young than can otherwise survive in order to offset losses caused by predation and other limiting factors.

A wide variety of predators may destroy the eggs, poults, and adults of wild turkey. The extent to which these may affect turkeys depends on the species and abundance of predator, season of the year, turkey numbers, and other environmental factors. In western Massachusetts, for example, predation on eggs or nesting hens accounted for 92% of nest losses and was the most important influence on turkey productivity. In one New Hampshire study, 45% of 40 nests were destroyed by predators, and predation coupled with severe spring weather reduced poult survival to 10%. Predation was the dominant cause of mortality for adult and yearling hens in western Massachusetts, with survival the lowest during the period between the breakup of winter flocks and the nesting season.

In the Northeast, nest predators may include snakes, crows, raccoons, and skunks, among others. The recent raccoon rabies epizootic in the Northeast greatly reduced raccoon densities, which may have a positive effect on the productivity of turkeys and other ground-nesting birds. Predators of poults and adults include red fox, coyote, fisher, bobcat, great horned owl, goshawk, red-tailed hawk, and other avian predators.

Generally, losses of adult turkeys do not greatly affect turkey populations. However, predation on nests and poults may have an effect under some conditions. Predation and recruitment rates are affected by human-caused changes in the landscape. An understanding of these relationships is essential to understanding the role of predation in turkey population dynamics.

What kinds of diseases do turkeys get?

Wild turkeys are subject to many infectious and non-infectious diseases and parasitical infections. Some of these are relatively innocuous, while others are very severe. Some of the most important are as follows:

Avian pox: This is an infectious, contagious viral disease, occurring mostly in the southeastern United States, but probably found throughout the eastern turkey's range. The most important means of transmission is by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking arthropods. This disease was reported in 12 of 13 years in a study in 8 southeastern states.

Salmonellosis: This infectious, contagious, bacterial disease is widespread in domestic and wild birds. Several species of Salmonella may be involved, including those which cause pullorum disease, fowl typhoid, and enteric salmonellosis. Pullorum and fowl typhoid probably do not occur in wild populations of turkeys at this time.

Mycoplasmosis: This disease is transmitted by any of several microorganisms (Mycoplasma), including Mycoplasma gallisepticum and M. synoviae. These diseases are well-known because of their significance in domestic turkeys. The disease is transmitted by contact with infected individuals, or through the egg. At this time, Mycoplasma probably does not occur widely in wild turkeys.

Blackhead Disease: Also called "histomoniasis", this disease is caused by the protozoan (1-celled animal) Histomonas meleagridis. It is transmitted by the caecal worm Heterakis gallinarum. Both wild and domestic turkeys are quite susceptible. Blackhead may be a relatively important mortality factor, and was diagnosed in 12% of sick or dead turkeys in 8 southeastern states over a 13-year period.

Coccidiosis: Infection with the 1-celled parasite Eimeria is relatively common, although most infections in wild birds are rather mild. Coccidiosis is more severe in domestic turkeys which are raised in large groups.

Blood Parasites: Wild turkeys harbor at least 4 different kinds of blood parasites, all of which are transmitted by mosquitoes, blackflies, and other blood-sucking arthropods. Infections caused by these blood parasites are often sublethal but may be a contributing cause of mortality among stressed birds.

What are the effects of weather on the wild turkey?


Precipitation is probably the most important factor which limits the geographical distribution of wild turkeys in North America. In the north, a zone of persistent, deep fluffy snow sets the northern boundary. This zone may shift over the years according to periodic changes in weather patterns. In the west and south, the turkey's range is limited by dry areas where there is too little rainfall to support trees.

Weather effects are generally considered to be a "density independent" factor affecting wildlife populations. That is, a severe snowstorm or flood can equally affect individual animals whether there are many or few of them within the affected area.

Snowfall affects wild turkeys by limiting their movements and blocking their access to food sources. During such severe conditions, turkeys may be lost to starvation. Weakened birds are also more susceptible to predation. However, if food is available, turkeys can withstand very cold temperatures. Wild turkeys in good condition can usually survive up to 2 weeks before a significant number die. In one western Massachusetts study, turkeys with access to standing corn had an average winter survival of 93%. The effect of snow includes not only the snow's depth, and the length of time it is on the ground, but also its condition. Fluffy powdered snow is more limiting to turkeys than crusted snow. Although turkeys cannot dig through snow deeper than about 6 inches, they also cannot walk any distance through snow deeper than 1 foot. If powdery snow prevails, turkeys may remain on the roost until it crusts or melts, but, with crusted snow, they may be able to walk to above-ground food sources.

Weather is also a limiting influence in spring. Extreme weather or weather events may delay the onset of mating and nesting, by influencing the condition of the birds and nesting habitat. Also, heavy rains and cold temperatures during the incubation, hatching and early brood rearing period are generally considered to be detrimental to turkeys. As in winter, however, these conditions must be severe and greater than the norm. The youngest birds may be all right, as they still have their yolk sac and are small enough to be brooded and warmed by the hen. Two-week-old poults, however, have used up their energy reserves and are too large to shelter under the hen. At this time, cold rains which go on for more than 1/2 day may result in fatal soaking and chilling of the poults. Spring losses may be greater in northern populations-- where temperatures may be more extreme-- than in the south where warmer rains prevail. In general, the more extreme the spring weather conditions (for better or worse), the better (or worse) that season's brood production becomes.

What do turkeys eat?

The availability of nutritious foods is an important factor affecting turkey populations. Biologists and wildlife managers need to know about the kinds, amount, and quality of foods used by turkeys throughout the year. Turkey food habits have been studied by examining turkey crops, stomachs, gizzards, and droppings, and by field studies. Lists of food eaten have been compiled for many areas of the United States, by season and by subspecies.

Insects are particularly important to young poults. In one Mississippi study, poults aged 3 to 7 days consumed a diet of 79% animal foods and 21% plants. By 22 to 38 days, turkeys were eating 13% animal foods and 87% plants. The major insect groups included beetles, true bugs, grasshoppers, and leafhoppers. In a Pennsylvania study, invertebrates comprised 57 to 99% of the number of items eaten by poults aged 1 to 4 weeks. Beetles, true bugs, and leafhoppers predominated in cultivated food plots, while grasshoppers were most important in old fields and flies and moth larvae in forests.


Adult turkeys feed most heavily on plant foods, at all seasons of the year, but animal foods may also be consumed. During spring and summer, foods may represent a sampling of that available, while at other times foods probably represent those abundant and available. The eastern turkey does have preferences and selects choice foods when available, but nevertheless consumes a great variety of both plant and animal foods. General food types include hard and soft mast (nuts and berries), green vegetation from grasses, sedges, and similar herbaceous plants, various seeds, agricultural crops, and small invertebrates. Plant material may include roots, tubers, buds, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, as well as other portions of the plants. Animals may include adults, larvae, pupae, eggs, and cocoons. In one Virginia study, turkey foods represented 354 species in 80 plant families as well as 313 animal species.

Over its range, predominant winter foods of the turkey include acorns, grass or sedge leaves, corn, grapes, and dogwood, while in spring acorns, grass or sedge leaves, oats, miscellaneous plants, and bluegrass are important. In summer, grass leaves, miscellaneous plants, blackberries, animal foods, and bluegrasses are most common, and, in autumn, crabgrasses, animal foods, acorns, grass or sedge leaves, and tick trefoils and other legumes (pea family) rank high.

In studies in 4 Northeastern states, acorns, grapes, corn, fern heads, barberries, multiflora rose hips, and beech and maple buds ranked as important winter foods. Grass and sedge leaves, nut crops, tubers, flowers, and seeds were valued in spring and summer. Beechnuts, acorns, grasses, cultivated grains, dogwood, grapes, and animal food were predominant fall foods. A 10-year New York study found acorns, beechnuts, black cherry fruits, ash and ironwood seeds, and hawthorne fruits to be major turkey foods in fall, winter, and spring. In summer, grass seeds and animal foods were also important.

The value of a particular habitat for wildlife can often be enhanced by changing the vegetational composition of that habitat or by planting various species which can provide food or cover for a desired wildlife species. In the Northeast, planting recommendations include buckwheat, clover, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, crabapple, dogwoods, viburnums, and oaks, among others. Botanists often recommend the planting of native species instead of exotic or non-native species.

What kinds of habitats do turkeys live in?

Over its range, the wild turkey inhabits a wide range of forested, semi-forested and open habitats. There are differences among the 5 living subspecies and its associated references).

In general, the eastern wild turkey is found in oak-hickory forests, or mixed hardwoods with red oak, beech, black cherry, and white ash predominating. Brood range necessarily includes pastures, forest openings, or savannah areas. Mature forests with a mixture of tree species are often preferred, but not essential. The oak-hickory and northern hardwood forests of North America are among the most varied habitats and land areas within the wild turkey's range.

Seventy years ago, it was thought that wild turkeys were a wilderness species, requiring extensive tracts of mature undisturbed forest. However, this assumption is now known to be false. Turkeys have been live-trapped and transplanted into other habitats and have thrived. Increased law enforcement has allowed turkey populations to grow dramatically in areas where they may have been eliminated decades ago. Thirdly, researchers have learned much more about the turkey's habitat requirements than was known in the 1920's.

In general, turkeys must have both trees and grasses. Trees provide food (nuts, etc.), resting and escape cover, and roosting areas at nighttime. Grasses provide food for adult turkeys, and an environment for poults to find insects. Precipitation is also very important in determining the overall range of turkeys. In the North, deep snowfall may restrict turkey range by limiting movements and food accessibility. In the West, dry areas restrict access to food and water, and prevent the growth of trees necessary for roosting.

The ratio of forest land to open land is also more variable than once was thought. Some early studies suggested that heavily wooded areas with 5 to 10% grassland openings were ideal. However, in some parts of the country, areas with as little as 15% forest land are supporting good turkey populations. When protected from over- exploitation from humans, turkeys seem to adapt well to a great diversity of habitats.

Nesting and brood habitat are important features of the turkey's range. Lateral cover and cover types with woody and herbaceous plants 0.5 to 3.0 feet in height are key components. The best nest sites are close to brood cover. The best brood cover is a savannah area providing both food and shelter.

Except for hens with poults too young to fly, turkeys always roost in trees at night. Turkeys may roost in a variety of habitats, but often in conifers and often over water (in southern areas). Away from wetlands, turkeys may roost on slopes near, but slightly away from, hilltops or ridges. Roost sites are often, but not always, sheltered from the weather. In cold-weather areas, roosts on northeast slopes and above cold air drainages allow turkeys to escape some severe condition.

What are the signs that show wild turkeys are in an area?

Aside from a clear view of the bird(-s) or hearing their calls, there are several ways that you can tell if turkeys are present in a particular area.

Tracks: Turkey tracks are an obvious indicator of the birds' presence. In winter, when snow blankets the landscape, examination of the tracks can tell you how many turkeys are present, perhaps what sex they are, where they have been and where they are going, and what their behavior and feeding habits are. At other times of the year, tracks may be found in muddy or sandy areas. Tracks normally show the 3 toes, with the "heel" print less obvious. In general, the middle toe of an eastern tom is about 21/2 inches and that of the hen about 2 inches. The distance from the tip of the middle toe to the back of the heel pad is generally less than 41/4 inches in hens and greater than that in toms.

Scratchings: Turkeys generally feed in flocks, with the birds scratching and digging in the duff on the forest floor for acorns, seeds, and other food items (especially fall and winter). This scratching turns up the leaves and other debris, looking like the area has been hard-raked or roto-tilled. Scratchings may sometimes be confused with those left by deer or squirrels; however, those animals often dig small holes and penetrate the earth. Turkeys rarely actually dig, although the scratching may scarify the surface of the ground. Deer tracks may also indicate the presence of that animal.

Dusting: (See below). Dust beds are usually body-sized, bowl-shaped depressions in loose soil, old ant hills, or sawdust piles. Tracks and loose feathers may be found in the dust bed or nearby.


Feathers: Loose feathers are an obvious clue and can help in aging or sexing the birds.

Droppings: A mass of droppings or splashes of dung at the base of a tree indicate that the turkeys have roosted there. Birds may not always use the same roost tree but may roost in the same general area over a period of time. From fall to spring, the sex of turkeys may be distinguished (along the trail and in feeding areas) from the shape of the dropping. Those of adult males, or gobblers, are often "J" or "L" shaped, with a curlicue on the end. Those of hens are more globular or lumpy, and shorter and less straight than those of the males. Both sexes may also pass excrement from their caecum, which shows up as soft blackish or brownish flattened splashes.

Strut Marks: In the spring, the gobbler's "strut marks" may be found in glades and

 openings where the tom is displaying. If there is bare ground in these areas, the male's dragging wings may leave parallel scratches about 1 foot apart, as if someone has scratched lines with a stick. These strutting areas may be preferred and used repeatedly by the gobbler.

I have seen shallow patches of fine soil with turkey feathers and tracks in them. What is "dusting" and why do turkeys do this?

Photo by Lori Cookman, MassWildlife

Birds must maintain their plumage to keep the feathers from being saturated with dry flakes of skin, excess preening oil, and other debris. Many birds take water baths to accomplish this purpose, either by dipping into water or by erecting their feathers during a drizzle. However, birds that live in areas where standing water is unavailable take "dust baths" as a substitute. Turkeys and other game birds, as well as wrens, house sparrows, and some raptors are know to "dust". They create wallows by scraping the ground and then throw the fine dusty soil over their bodies. The dust is worked into the plumage and then shaken out along with the skin debris and excess oil absorbed by the dust.

Dusting was once thought to be a means by which the birds ridded themselves of bird lice and other external parasites. While dusting may do this, there is no hard evidence which shows this to be the case.

How do researchers catch a turkey alive?

It is important to be able to catch wild turkeys (and other wildlife) alive and unharmed in order to undertake restoration programs, and conduct field research and population surveys. It is ineffective, however, to put salt on their tails!

Early settlers and others once captured wild turkeys in pens constructed from poles and rails. Turkeys followed bait trails through an entry maze and could not find their way out. In the 1930's, biologists used these traps and other large cage-like traps with swinging doors to catch turkeys. These were rather ineffective and cumbersome, especially when used to capture forest-dwelling eastern turkeys which shied away from such structures.


Cannon and Rocket Nets:
In 1948, Federal biologists developed a mortar-thrown net for the capture of waterfowl. Basically, this device used 3 steel tubes (similar to artillery mortars used by the Army) which could be loaded with an electrically-initiated explosive charge in the base. Weights were attached to the net and inserted in the mortar tubes. Bait was placed in front of the folded net, and, when the ducks came to the bait, the charges were fired and the net propelled over the birds and entangling them for capture. A later version of the net used more powerful rocket-like projectiles which were more efficient. Versions of this net were soon adapted (early 1950's) to the capture of turkeys and other wildlife. By the 1980's, at least 42 of 49 states used cannon or rocket nets in their turkey restoration programs. Capture and handling

 guidelines have been developed which expedite capture while maintaining security and safety for both the captured animals and the field workers.

Drop Nets:
In the western states, where Rio Grande and Merriam's turkeys are found in more open habitats and often seek shade, turkeys may be captured in drop nets. These nets are raised on poles, and when turkeys come to feed on bait underneath, the nets are dropped with heavy weights or thrust down explosively, thus capturing the birds.

Capture Drugs:
Various anesthetic drugs have been used to capture wild turkeys. Bait is treated with a solution of the drug, and turkeys feed upon it and become immobilized and can be captured by hand or in a net. This technique is sometimes quite useful, since a bait site doesn't have to be prepared, cost is lower than for rocket-netting, fewer people are needed, and vandalism does not occur. However, partially drugged turkeys may wander off and be lost. Turkeys may be under anesthesia for a lengthy period, which can be stressful and possibly life-threatening. Federal restrictions on drug use may also limit the use of oral drugs for turkey capture.

Other Methods:
Occasionally, "game-farm" turkeys, which are less wary than wild birds, may be captured in home-made pole traps, or pens made of netting. These may be useful in urban situations where the use of rocket nets is not warranted due to noise or safety reasons. Individual nuisance birds may also be captured with a shoulder-fired net gun, which shoots a small net at the target animal. Non-flying poults may be captured by hand or in a hand-held butterfly net.

Regardless of the capture and handling method used, it is important to test the equipment, maintain it well, provide periodic training for the users, and to develop a set of standards and guidelines for its use. Researchers must, at all times, be attentive to the safety and welfare of the animals they study, and to conduct themselves accordingly.

How do you count turkeys in the wild?

A commonly asked question regarding wildlife is "how many are there"? This is simple to ask but complex to answer. First, we need to define what grouping is meant by "how many". We normally use the term "population". This means a group of animals occupying a particular geographical area at a particular time, and which is isolated from other groups of the same species. This may be very broad, such as the North American continent, or very small, such as a tiny island. Except on small areas, or where the animal itself may be very rare (e.g., the number of whooping cranes in North America), there isn't an easy-- or even possible-- way to get an exact count of most populations. The animals may be too wide-ranging, secretive, difficult to capture (or harmed in the process), costly to survey, or vary in numbers quickly to make such a count practical. Such an exact count is called a "census". An "estimate" or "population estimate" is an approximation of the true population size based on some sampling method. A "survey" samples a portion of the individuals in a given population, and an "index" is a measurable factor or count of some segment of the population (e.g., the number of cooing doves in spring) which can be related to population size in some manner, and which changes predictably with population size. An index may be direct (e.g., the number of deer seen per road mile), or indirect (e.g., the number of coyote dens per square mile). However, most population indices are now considered suspect as a basis for making inferences about a population without an empirical measure of the sampled population segment ("detection probability").

Population size does play an important role in wildlife management. For scarce animals, it may be desirable to increase their numbers, while, with some abundant species, a reduction in population size may be warranted. For animals that are hunted or trapped, a goal may be to maintain a specific population level which can sustain a certain level of harvest or to keep over-population from producing habitat degradation. However, there may not always be a need for an actual population size (i.e., a "number"). A single count at a given point in time and space doesn't tell much about the overall status and viability of a population. It may be more useful to get a series of counts over a period of time, or in different habitats and at different seasons. Or, it may be most useful to determine the "trend" of a population. That is, is it increasing, decreasing, or stable over time? It may also be important to know the ratio of occupied habitat to vacant habitat, rather than the exact population size. Nevertheless, some measure of population size is often necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of changes in the environment or in management practices.

Also, since many animals show a great seasonal variation in population size, due to natural seasonal mortality, an estimate or comparison of estimates must be qualified to reflect that situation. The accuracy of the estimate must also be considered; that is, how close does the estimate come to the real population size. It may be easy to come up with a number, but the margin of error around that number may be considerable. Finally, we need to consider the cost of obtaining an estimate, and the use to which the estimate will be put. Some estimation methods-- especially over large areas-- may cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The use to which these estimates are put, in terms of benefit to the species and its management, must be weighed against such costs. Due to biases, uncertainties, or lack of knowledge, it is often wise to employ a suite of estimation techniques, rather than a single indicator.

A detailed explanation and assessment of wildlife population estimators is well beyond the scope of this Question. However, we can relate it to the wild turkey in terms of some of the population assessment measures that are used, and demonstrate some of the complexities, utilities, and flaws that may affect such population estimates.

Population Abundance Techniques for Wild Turkey:
Techniques which have been used for estimating wild turkey abundance may be used and grouped as follows. A variety of "tools" or methods may be used to accomplish these, including radio-telemetry, baiting, interviews, playback of tape-recorded calls, harvest check stations, mail or telephone surveys, permit records, and several others.

Censuses: Counts of winter flocks or roosting birds have been used to census Rio Grande turkeys in Texas; such counts elsewhere (e.g., forest-dwelling eastern turkeys) may only be an index.

Estimates: Estimates of turkeys have been made or proposed to be made through the use of: (a) aerial counts (but these may also be an index and are not useful in forested habitat), (b) line and strip transects (making counts along a particular defined line or strip of habitat), (c) plot sampling (number found in a particular area), (d) drive counts (which may also be an index; this involves moving through an area and counting flushed animals), (e) mark-recapture (live-trapping and tagging birds, recapturing them directly or by radio-location, and making an estimate based on the proportions of marked birds in the initial capture-recapture to those subsequently taken), (f) removal methods (e.g. catch-per-unit of effort, such as the number of turkeys taken per hunter-hour), (g) map plotting (marking locations of observed birds from field interviews with landowners or by field sightings), and (h) a combination of methods.

Indices: Turkey populations have been measured or proposed to be measured through a variety of indices of varying usefulness and degree of difficulty, including: (a) brood surveys, (b) hunter reports, (c) roadside surveys, (d) gobbling counts, (e) track counts (esp. in winter), (f) level of nuisance or damage complaints, (g) harvest data (related to removal-method estimates), (h) feeding and dusting site counts, (i) dropping or pellet counts, and (j) poult survival studies.

Modeling of Wild Turkey Populations:
Computer simulations or "models" are mathematical representations of a real population or biological system. Such models are often simplified so that they contain only those relevant features necessary to develop the population estimate. Age-specific mortality and reproductive data are commonly included in wild turkey population models to generate projections of the population size (and age structure) over time. A good model may tell you the trend of the population, the effects of various death rates (e.g., hunter harvest) on the population, and perhaps how deficiencies in knowledge may affect the estimates. However, a model is only as good as the data that goes into it. Some components may be more important than others. Models usually need to be tested by comparing them against real-world situations. One kind of model is "deterministic"-- the data that are input (e.g., clutch size) are fixed and the results of the model depends on those fixed values. In a "stochastic" model, the input data varies randomly, within a certain range that is set by the user (e.g., "clutch size may vary from 10.5 to 12.1"). Stochastic models are most useful if the user is interested in variations within the population or biological system.

There are about 6 models which have been developed for use with wild turkey populations. One older model (VA) made assumptions now known to be incorrect and is largely discredited. Three others (IA, NY) are deterministic models, one (NY) a stochastic model, and the last (MO) deterministic within known data years and stochastic for projected years. Other models are in various stages of development. All models contain a variety of assumptions which may not be easily met. Recruitment and harvest strategies appear to be important values in several of the models. Age- and time-specific variations in mortality and recruitment are often variable and may be essential to the utility of the model. Density-dependent and density-independent factors may also influence mortality and recruitment. Long-term field studies may be required to obtain the data or "parameters" which go into the model, and for verifying it under real-world conditions.

Did Ben Franklin recommend the wild turkey as the National Emblem?

It is commonly believed that Benjamin Franklin recommended the wild turkey as our National Emblem instead of the bald eagle. While there is some basis in fact for this belief, it isn't really what Franklin had in mind. It arises from Franklin's remarks to his daughter, Sarah Bache, in 1784, in which he criticizes a veterans' organization (the American Order of the Cincinnati) for choosing the bald eagle as their emblem. Franklin remarked that:

"Others object to the bald eagle [i.e., on the Cincinnati's emblem] as looking too much like a dindon, or turkey. For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living those among men who live by sharping and robbing...he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little king-bird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district...I am, on this account, not displeased that the figure [i.e., the Cincinnati's drawing] is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours...He is, besides, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on".

While Franklin was probably being somewhat jocular, and his reference to its "courage" rather tongue-in-cheek, he apparently did like the wild turkey and its native qualities. He may indeed have been suggesting that the American Emblem should be a uniquely American animal, instead of the more wide-ranging eagle.

It is noteworthy that the Wild Turkey ranked quite high in preference in 1941 when the citizens of Massachusetts were polled as to their preference for "state bird". Although the chickadee won out, it is quite possible that, if the wild turkey was not then extirpated from the state, it may have come in first. At this time, the Wild Turkey is honored as the "game bird and game bird emblem" of the Commonwealth (Massachusetts General Laws, c. 2, § 36).

Did the Pilgrims eat turkey at the First Thanksgiving?


One of our particularly endearing folk images conveys a vision of smiling, broad-hatted Pilgrims and loincloth-clad, befeathered Indians sitting convivially around a log table, feasting on fat turkeys roasted over an open fire. Like many such images, this homely scene blends reality and fiction. Visit Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and learn more about our ancestors and that time period.

In the autumn of 1621, following the dreadful winter of 1620-21 and the following summer's productive harvest of crops, the surviving 50-odd Pilgrims celebrated and feasted for 3 days, inviting Massasoit and 90 of his tribesmen as well. This wasn't a religious ceremony in the sense of thanking God for deliverance, but rather a harvest festival reflecting joy over the gathering-in of crops and foods. The exact date can't be determined from existing narratives, but it wasn't at the time of our current Thanksgiving Day. As best as we know, the 1621 feast was between September 23 and November 11, most likely sometimes in October.

We also don't know everything that was served at that festival, but some information has come down to us. "Mourt's Relation", published in London in 1622, tersely reports that "...our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a week...many of the Indians coming amongst us...whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on the Governour...".

William Bradford's "Journal" is somewhat more specific. He wrote that "...besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to that proportion." Further careful reading of the two accounts indicates that various fish and shellfish, partridge, squash and pumpkins, grapes, and dried berries were probably served at the festival.

Thus, while the wild turkey was undoubtedly on the table in the fall of 1621, it wasn't necessarily the pièce de résistance but rather one native kind of game among several.

Interestingly, our current national "Thanksgiving" holiday was first proclaimed in 1863 (in August) by President Lincoln after the Battle of Gettysburg. Another proclamation followed that November 26th, with overtones more harvest-oriented than religious. Since about 1865, Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated nationally, and by the several states, on the last Thursday of November. Turkey (along with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie) was a favored harvest-time dish at least by the mid-1800's. However, it really didn't come into vogue until the mid-1900's when tender hybrid breeds of turkeys such as the "Beltsville White" were developed and touted through modern advertising methods.

(Photo courtesy of Plimoth Plantation)

Do people hunt wild turkeys?

The wild turkey, like other "gallinaceous" or chicken-like birds such as ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse, and bobwhite quail, is considered a "game bird". These non-migratory birds are regulated by the various state governments and are not subject to Federal oversight under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The states manage recreational hunting through a combination of statutes and regulations including hunting licenses and special permits, restricted seasons and bag limits, limited hunting hours, open and closed zones, prohibitions on certain methods of take, and sex restrictions (e.g., male-only in many spring turkey seasons). These provisions, coupled with biological research and management, are designed to allow interested persons to enjoy and participate in a traditional cultural activity, while maintaining and perpetuating a diverse and abundant resource for the enjoyment of future generations.

Participation in hunting, as a recreational pursuit, is an intensely personal choice, based on one's interests, system of values, educational and cultural background, and experiences and attitudes. Those persons who do choose to hunt are required by law to comply with an array of regulatory procedures, and by tradition and peer group pressure to act responsibly and ethically (see, for example, the National Wild Turkey Federation's "Turkey Hunter's Code of Conduct").

In the late 1940's, when wild turkeys were scarce in the U.S., only 13 states had turkey hunting seasons with an estimated take of 24,900 birds. Then, after vigorous and astoundingly successful restoration efforts, other states gradually began opening spring, and sometimes fall, seasons. Now, all 49 states with turkey populations, and 4 Canadian provinces, have limited spring gobbler seasons, for an estimated 1999 spring harvest of 564,077 birds. Forty states and 1 province have a fall (either-sex) season, with a estimated 1998-99 harvest of 175,595 turkeys. At least 1,806,250 spring hunters and 855,300 fall hunters participate in these seasons.

In Massachusetts, the first modern spring hunt was opened in 1980 in 2 counties, with an estimated 1250 participants and a harvest of 72 turkeys. Hunting was (and is) by permit only, but, by 1985, enough area was occupied by turkeys and the population had grown enough, that every applicant received a permit. For the period 1994 to 1996, with a 3-week season open in 5 counties, the turkey harvest averaged 1210 with about 12,000 participants. The season was increased to 4 weeks in 7 counties in 1997. In 1999, it again increased by adding 4 more counties, which had a 2-week season. A record harvest of 2363 was set that year. The first 1-week fall season was opened in 1990, and over the 3 autumns from 1997-99, with hunting allowed in 4 counties and part of a fifth, the harvest averaged 190.

The North American model of wildlife conservation, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, affirms that publicly-owned resources can be conserved rather than degraded. The key components of the model are: (1) wildlife is a public trust resource, (2) market hunting is eliminated, (3) wildlife is allocated to the public by law, (4) wildlife may only be killed for legitimate purposes, (5) wildlife is an international resource, (6) wildlife policy must be science-based, and (7) hunting is a democratic phenomenon.

Turkey hunting follows both the spirit and intent of the model. It is an exciting and challenging means of hunting, requiring considerable skill, experience and patience on the part of the hunter. The use of turkey callers are essential in spring and very helpful in fall. Many books, videotapes, and audio cassettes are available to assist the novice hunter. Importantly, however, sportsmen's groups, including local Chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation, regularly conduct hunter training seminars. While also providing hunting techniques and tips, these seminars emphasize safety, ethics, and responsible behavior. The evocative and spiritual outdoor experience, rather than the trophy, should be the goal in hunting.

The wild turkey also provides an exciting and stimulating experience for those who choose not to hunt. Outdoor still photography, videotaping, birding and turkey-watching are valued activities for many citizens, including many who also hunt. Some people also enjoy turkeys vicariously by reading the many books about turkeys and turkey hunting or turkey natural history (e.g., Kelly 1973, Williams 1981, Keck and Langston 1992), or by collecting turkey art work, stamps, memorabilia, or artifacts. Whatever your enthusiasms, the wild turkey is part of the American heritage and an essential component of our native fauna, and to be treasured by us and our children now and for the future.

Should I feed wild turkeys in the winter?

The question of supplemental winter feeding has been debated, often passionately, for many years. While there are no absolute answers, and perhaps rare exceptions, the prevailing opinion now holds that winter feeding of turkeys is an unwise practice. It is expensive and may divert funds from more worthy endeavors, may unnaturally concentrate turkeys in areas where they are subject to poaching or predation, may encourage disease transmission, and is often unnecessary in light of the turkeys' ability to withstand intolerant weather and to adapt to alternate food sources such as standing crops, agricultural plantings, and field-spread cow manure. The National Wild Turkey Federation, among others, discourages the winter feeding of turkeys and does not allow the use of its "Super Fund" monies for this purpose.

MassWildlife has stated that it "...does not practice, and does not condone or support, the artificial winter feeding of wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, or other wildlife. Winter feeding may concentrate the animals in areas close to dwellings or other structures, where they are more susceptible to human interference, free-ranging dogs, and vehicle strikes. Such unnatural concentrations may also render turkeys or other wildlife susceptible to poaching or disease transmission. Additionally, wild turkeys have evolved under a range of weather and climatic conditions, including periods of extreme cold and deep snows. These animals have adapted to such conditions and, while weakened or susceptible individuals may succumb, their populations persist and rebound in following years. In short, both mild and severe winters are as much a part of the natural environment of turkeys and deer as are oak forests, grassy meadows, and canine predators. We consequently see no need or justification for the artificial winter feeding of wildlife. Rather, we recommend that persons employ or support those agricultural and silvicultural practices which enhance wildlife habitat and the productivity and availability of natural foods, including hard mast species and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs."

What kinds of habitat management will help the wild turkey?

Habitat loss or degradation was a principal factor in the decline of the wild turkey from the settlement period through the early 1900's. Although biologists and land managers have learned much about the wild turkey in the past 60 years, and have been astonishingly successful in restoring this bird to its native range, there are still threats that face the wild turkey. Habitat changes remain one of the principal threats.

Over the past 30 years, forest land nationwide has declined by about 5 percent. This trend will probably continue with the conversion of forests to urban-suburban residences, or to cropland. The conversion of rich, natural forests to intensively managed single-species forests has also had a detrimental impact, especially in the South. Massachusetts was about 65% forested in 1951, 63% in 1971, and 61% in 1984-85. Additionally, Massachusetts' forests have been slowly maturing over the decades. Older growth forests-- especially oak and hickory-- produce the nuts or "hard mast" that turkeys, deer, and bear thrive on. However, this shift to older growth has left the other age classes of forest behind. In 1920, 80% of the Massachusetts forests were in seeding-sapling stage, 15% in pole timber, and 5% in older (sawtimber) stages. By 1953, these groups were 40%, 48%, and 12%, respectively. By 1985, only 7% of the forest was seeding-sapling, with 37% in pole timber, and 56% in sawtimber. These changes affect nesting and brood rearing habitat for turkeys, as well habitat for ruffed grouse, woodcock, hare, and other species which thrive in early successional habitats. Forest management regimes which blunt this skewed distribution of forest types and provide a richer mosaic of habitats would benefit the wild turkey and other wildlife.

Habitat management practices may include cooperative programs with landowners, farmers, logging companies, and utility companies. Extension foresters, wildlife habitat specialists, as well as private individuals can join forces to increase habitat benefits to wildlife while maintaining the usefulness of their initial tree harvesting, crop growing, or right-of-way management programs. Some practices which are beneficial include: seeding of log landings and rights-of-way, creation and management of small forest openings, management of seepages and streamside areas, reclaiming old surface mines and gravel pits, and managing a forest or woodland for a diversity of both timber and wildlife. Keep in mind that, in Massachusetts, many botanists and land managers recommend the planting or enhancement of native plants over exotics, where possible.

See also MassWildlife Biodiversity Initiative.

How can I help the wild turkey?

Despite the successful restoration and recovery of the wild turkey throughout North America, we should not become complacent. Both in the long and the short term, there are both direct and indirect threats to the wild turkey and its habitat, and to our environment in general. While habitat changes are among the most important threats in some ways, there are yet other problems to be solved, questions to be answered, and programs to be undertaken which will help the wild turkey and its habitats.

Some of the detailed needs and concerns regarding the wild turkey include: (1) merge habitat use, home range, and movement data into a generalized model which can evaluate the usefulness of various habitats, (2) institute or continue long-term studies of wild turkey population dynamics, with standardized and replicable techniques, (3) refine our knowledge of the role of disease, predation, hunting, and genetics as they affect wild turkeys, (4) increase our knowledge of turkey social behavior and intra-species interactions, (5) develop broad-scale consistent means for monitoring trends in wild turkey populations, (6) emphasize safe quality hunting rather than maximum yield, and (7) effectively communicate knowledge and awareness to the public. However, while deeply important, most of these are best addressed by biologists and researchers. What is the role, if any, which can be played by the concerned lay person?

(1) Habitat management can be important on a small scale, as well as a broad one. Landowners, farmers, timber companies, communities, greenbelt associations, and other small landholders can develop and implement habitat management practices that can benefit wild turkeys. Individuals can, either on their own property, or in conjunction with others, work towards these practices. Coordinate with local offices of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Division of Forests and Parks, the New England Chapter of The Wildlife Society, or certified foresters to learn how this may be accomplished. In Massachusetts, you can contribute to habitat preservation by purchasing a $5 "Wildlands Stamp" from MassWildlife. Monies from this stamp are dedicated to the purchase of lands which are "Forever Wild". Since 1991, over 12,000 acres have been acquired with monies from this stamp.

(2) Learn more about the wild turkey and its needs, and the environment in which both we and turkeys live. The groups and individuals above can provide assistance and guidance. You can also contact the Massachusetts chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation , which is working for the wild turkey in Massachusetts.

(3) Help to communicate information about the wild turkey and wildlife habitats to others. Support Project WILD, Project Learning Tree, Project WET, the National Wild Turkey Federation "JAKES" and "Women in the Outdoors" programs, Becoming an Outdoorswoman, and other environmental education programs which communicate environmental awareness to our youths. Ask MassWildlife staff, members of The Wildlife Society, and other biologists and environmental specialists to speak to your groups about wild turkeys or wildlife habitats. Help to inform others about issues such as "game-farm" turkeys, habitat loss or change, wildlife diseases, and winter feeding.

(4) Cooperate in public programs which collect information about wild turkeys. Perhaps, in your area, biologists have made releases of wild turkeys and need a follow-up on sightings and the effectiveness of the release. Perhaps assistance may be needed in conducting spring "gobbler" survey routes, or in collecting summer brood information . Cooperators may be needed to provide or distribute seeds or seedlings to restore logged or disturbed areas.

(5) Become knowledgeable in your local community and your state. Communicate with your elected officials and let them know how you feel about the wild turkey, the environment, and wildlife in general. Your concern about habitat destruction, pollution, poaching and law enforcement, and funding for fish and wildlife programs helps the wild turkey as well as other wildlife. Exercise your right to vote. Write to newspapers and express your opinion about issues affecting the wild turkey. Foster cooperative programs and bridge-building among individuals and groups with common interests in the wild turkey and the environment.