In honour of the recent Thanksgiving holiday in the US, I’m going to write about the animal most associated with Thanksgiving: the turkey. Of course, almost all the turkeys eaten at Thanksgiving are farmed, domesticated birds. But there are wild turkeys, and I’ve seen some!

There’s a field where I regularly walk my dogs, and I was out one day with my nice camera and the dogs, all set to take super cool macro shots of insects. All of a sudden there was a flurry of wings and feathers, and my dog and I had stumbled right into a flock of wild turkeys. I grabbed my camera to get some awesome shots of turkeys flying… and remembered I had my macro lens on. So all I could do was stand there like an idiot watching them, while my dog completely ignored the birds (despite the fact that he’s a retriever). I was disappointed about not getting any pictures, but it was a cool experience!

A female wild turkey. Image by Greg Hume, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wild turkeys are native to North America, and are found across most of the US and in northern Mexico. Turkeys originally ranged into southern Canada, but were hunted to near extinction by the 1940s. Reintroduction efforts have been quite successful, and the birds can now be found in a number of Canadian provinces, as well as in some western US states. They have also been introduced to Germany, the Czech Republic, Hawaii and New Zealand.

One of the reason wild turkeys are so widespread is their ability to live in a variety of habitats. They prefer areas of woodlands mixed with clearings, such as pastures, farmlands, marshes or orchards. Basically all turkeys need is some kind of vegetative cover, with some open areas to forage in.

I learned one thing while I was drawing my art for this week’s post: turkeys are ugly. Really ugly. They are also quite big, with males reaching weights of 6.8 to 11kg, and females 3.6 to 5.4 kg. Both sexes have dark feathers, usually brown to black with a coppery sheen. Males are bigger than females, and tend to have more complex coat colouring. Male turkeys have bare heads, which show off a hideous visage, complete with red skin, wattles on their throat and neck, and a caruncle protruding from the tops of their heads. Their heads can also change colour depending on the turkey’s mood, from red to blue to white.

Another reason turkeys can do quite well in a variety of areas is their ability to survive on a wide range of foods. They are omnivorous, and will eat acorns, nuts, seeds, berries, roots, insects, and occasionally larger animals like lizards and snakes. They are quite common in farmed fields post harvest, as they collect any leftover seeds from the harvest.

Wild turkeys can fly! Image by Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You might not think it, but wild turkeys are quite good fliers, though they generally do not fly for distances greater than 400 meters. They are social animals, living together in flocks during the winter. To communicate with one another, wild turkeys use a variety of sounds, including the famous ‘gobble’, as well as clucks, putts, purrs, and many more.

The gobble sound that turkeys are so well-known for is primarily used by adult males during the mating season. The birds begin their mating displays in the spring, with males gobbling and spitting with their large tails fanned out, head lowered, and wings spread onto the ground. Interestingly, male turkeys sometimes court in groups or pairs, with only the dominant male displaying. Those that court in pairs tend to lay more eggs than those that don’t, and are usually close relatives.

Look at those impressive tail feathers! Image by Checkingfax, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Female turkeys lay their eggs on the ground, in shallow holes that are generally hidden within bushes or grass. Females lay between 4 and 17 eggs, which she incubates for about a month. Upon hatching, the chicks are precocial, feeding themselves and wandering form their nests within 24 hours of hatching. The mother broods them for the next two weeks, protecting the hatchlings from predators. The young stay with the mother until the fall if they are males, and until the spring if they are females.

Turkeys are delicious, though I’ve only ever had domestic turkey. Still I wouldn’t mind trying a wild turkey someday. Unfortunately I don’t think either of my dogs is up to the task of catching a turkey — Mallow doesn’t seem to care about them and Gabbie has tried, and failed. But still, wild turkeys are pretty fun to see on dog walks!

Cover image by Tuvas at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons