The wild turkey is the largest of North America’s game birds. The head and neck are bare and the skin can range from blue to bright red. Adult males, known as toms or gobblers weigh between 16 and 24 pounds and can stand 4 feet tall at maturity. Toms grow a beard which is a cluster of long, hair like feathers from the center of its chest. Toms have iridescent red, green, copper, bronze and gold feathers. They use these bright colors to attract females during the breeding season. Females, known as hens, are smaller than males and weigh between 8 and 12 pounds. Hens have drab, brown or gray feathers.
Wild turkeys, especially young turkeys called poults, are preyed upon by foxes, coyotes, cougars, owls, and eagles. Predators such as snakes, skunks, crows, opossums, raccoons, dogs, coyotes, and even rodents are always on the lookout for an easy lunch and will raid a turkey nest and its eggs when it can. Only about half of the turkey nests make it to hatching.
Wild turkeys usually feed in the early morning and in the afternoon. Turkeys have excellent vision during the day but don’t see as well at night. Turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 mph, and they can fly up to 55 mph. Average life span in the wild is only 1.3 to 1.6 years.
Wild Turkeys are found in many different habitats, including oak hardwood forest, swamps, pastures, open fields, chaparral and ponderosa pine forests. Wild turkeys like open areas for feeding and mating. They use forested areas as cover from predators and for roosting in trees at night. A varied habitat of both open and covered area is essential for survival.
Wild Turkeys are omnivores, which means they feed on both animals and plants. Acorns form a major portion of their diet, but wild turkeys also feed on seeds, nuts, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and, surprisingly, salamanders.
Males (Toms) and females (hens) reach sexual maturity at about 10 months of age. Turkeys mate in early spring. One male will mate with multiple females. Hens will lay 8 to 12 eggs over a period of two weeks. The hen incubates the eggs for about 28 days. Newly hatched poults grow rapidly but are flightless until 2 weeks of age. Wild turkeys usually have only one brood per mating season.
Wild Turkey Through The Seasons
The day is spent in search of food and conserving energy. Nights are spent in above-ground roosts trying to keep warm. South-facing forested areas and seeps (areas where water is coming out of the ground) are preferred in winter. Toms and hens flock according to their gender.
Wild Turkeys mate in spring. Toms fan their tails, gobble and strut to attract several females. The hens scratch out a nest, forming a shallow depression surrounded by vegetation to help hide it.
Poults spend the summer with their mother. She will fend off predators and roost with them at night. By mid-summer two or more hens and their poults flock together. This helps protect poults from predators. They search for insects, berries and seeds to eat. Adults will even eat salamanders and small reptiles. Toms become solitary by late summer.
In fall, turkeys focus their search for food in forested areas with nut-producing trees such as oak, hickory and beech. These trees produce acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts, respectively – all favorites of wild turkeys.
Tracks: Three toes facing forward, 3-½ inches to 4-½ inches long by 3-¾ inches to 4-¼ inches wide. Claws are not always visible.
Scat: Turkey scat is small, cylindrical and blunt on the ends. It is composed of plant and insect matter. The male scat typically forms a “J” shape whereas female scat does not.
Nests: Female turkeys scratch out their nests on the ground. They use vegetation to surround the nest, form the cup, and hide it. The average turkey nest contains 8 to 12 eggs.
Roosts: A roost is a perch where birds rest or sleep. Look for turkey feathers and scat on the ground to indicate a roost in the branches above. Turkeys form roosts in the fall and winter to keep warm.
Dustbowl: Turkeys use dirt to cover their feathers and remove parasites. The action of covering their feathers with dirt creates a depression in the ground that looks like a shallow bowl. Since they use the same site often, these bowls are easy to identify.
Calls to Use When Hunting
Cluck: In spring, turkeys “cluck” to get the attention of other birds. A hunter can use a cluck call to reassure an approaching Tom a hen is nearby.
Yelp: This call is used by hens and Toms for a variety of reasons. It means “Come here” or “Where are you?” Hunters use this call to lure male turkeys closer.
Kee-Kee run: The kee-kee run is the call of lost young turkeys. It is often heard in autumn and means “I need you.” In autumn, turkeys are commonly found in family groups. Both adult male and female birds will investigate the call. Hunters use the kee-kee run call in the fall to attract both adult male and female birds, since either one will investigate the call.
Turkey feathers are very tight and strong. Careful shot placement is important because the arrow needs to penetrate the tough outer feathers and bone. Broadside shots are difficult because the wings can stop an arrow’s progress. Facing toward and facing away are good shots to consider.
- Camouflage clothing is very important since turkey’s have excellent eyesight.
- Decoys used in conjunction with calls will bring Toms within range in the fall.
- Setting up in an area with plenty of turkey sign will ensure opportunities for a shot.
Field Dressing & Meat Care
To field dress your bird, start by placing the turkey on its back. Find the bottom of the breast plate and insert your knife, making a cut to the anus. Remove the entrails from this opening and then reach into the cavity to sever the windpipe, heart and lungs. Cool the cavity by placing ice inside the chest. Remove the feathers after dipping the bird in hot water.
Content was provided by the National Wild Turkey Federation, for more information go to www.nwtf.org.
- Cooney, Judd. The Bowhunter’s Field Manual. New York: Woods N’ Water, 2006.
- Eaton, S. 1992. Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Pp. 1-28 in A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 22. Philadelphia, PA: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists’ Union.
- National Geographic Society, 1996. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society.
- Hewitt, O. 1967. The Wild Turkey and its Management. Washington, DC: The Wildlife Society.
- Williams, L. 1981. The Book of the Wild Turkey. Tulsa: Winchester Press.