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Interesting Facts about Turkeys

Wild Turkeys
Handsome Tom wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving!
We seldom see wild turkeys while backpacking, although we were surprised to see a flock alongside the road while heading back from a trailhead at Linville Gorge in North Carolina. There were at least a dozen birds in the flock, but their natural fear of humans meant I could not get the camera out in time to take a picture. They consecutively dashed away in the thick of the tree cover.

This made me realize how little I know about the lifestyle of this wild bird that seemingly roams free beneath the canopy of trees.

How typical is it for turkeys to travel in packs like this? Where are you most likely to find wild turkeys? The more you know about the natural world, the more you can appreciate it and show mercy to it.

Despite many Americans viewing the Turkey as a Thanksgiving centerpiece food, turkeys should earn more respect than this. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, we’d like to share a few fascinating facts about the Wild Turkey –

  • The first native bird to be domesticated. The Turkey is one of the two domesticated poultry birds native to North America. The other bird is the Muscovy Duck.
  • Turkey is among the most ancient birds. The wild turkey is a Gallinaceous bird (order Galliformes), or long-legged, heavy-bodied chicken-like land birds. They diverged from pheasants 11 million years ago and were likely distributed continuously from the middle latitudes of North America to South America during the Pleistocene. The Galliforme order also includes chicken, quail, partridge, pheasants, grouse and fowl.
  • There are only two types of wild turkey, one type is originally from the Yucatan peninsula (Agriocharis ocellata) and the other is from the US and Mexico (Meleagris gallopavo).
  • Turkeys are social birds and move on the ground in small flocks. The basic unit is the family flock (brood) consisting of the female (hen) and her young (poults or chicks). When the weather turns cold, they typically separate into three groups: young males (jakes), adult males (toms), and females (hens) of all ages. Winter groups can exceed 200 birds.
  • Turkeys sleep in trees as a flock. They perch on tree branches to stay safe from predators, such as coyotes and foxes. When they wake up, they call out a series of soft yelps before descending the trees to make sure the others in the roosting group made it through the night okay.
  • Males gobble, females click. If you hear the birds gobbling, they are males. If you hear them making a clicking sound, they are hens. The turkey gobble can be heard up to a mile away on a quiet day.
  • Wild Turkey 159Turn red when excited. The fleshy flap of skin that hangs over the gobbler’s beak is called the snood. It is normally a pale pinkish color when the bird is relaxed, but turns to bright red when the bird gets excited.
  • Turkeys eat stones. The gizzard, which is part of the Turkey’s stomach, contains tiny stones swallowed by the bird. Also known as gastroliths, these stones help them grind food since they do not have teeth.
  • Turkeys have 2 stomachs. The first stomach is called the glandular stomach, where food is softened and broken down by gastric juices. The food then enters the turkey’s second stomach, the gizzard, where it is ground against the gastroliths.
  • Wild turkeys are fast fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and capable runners (15-30 mph). They can take full flight from a sitting position, but seldom fly more than a few hundred feet due to their short wings and heavy body weight. When agitated, they are more likely to run. On the contrary, commercially raised (domestic) Turkeys are not able to fly – their diet causes an abnormal body weight, rendering it impossible to fly and difficult to stand. They are bred to grow breasts so large that they fall over and are unable to breed without artificial insemination.
  • Turkeys are non-migratory. Their heavy plumage and low activity helps them to conserve energy during cold temperatures. They are opportunistic omnivores, eating a variety of plant and insects when it is available.
  • Males are colorful. Like most other bird species, male turkeys are more colorful than the females. Males display their elaborate colors during courtship.
  • Born with feathers. Just hatched wild turkeys are precocial, which means they hatch with feathers and can fend for themselves quickly. Chicks leave the nest within 24 hours to forage for food with the guidance of mom. The male provides no parental care. poult
  • Turkeys see in color and have excellent daytime vision. Because turkeys are a prey species their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide 270 degree field of vision. But, because of their wide spaced eyes, turkeys sacrifice depth perception; they have difficulty seeing directly ahead with both eyes at the same time.
  • Turkeys, like all birds, have no external ears. Like their eyes, a bird’s ears are located on the side of their head, and because they have no outer ear (pinna) with a funnel to concentrate sound in one direction, they hear sounds all the way around them. This makes it difficult to determine the direction of sound. This is why birds sometimes fly into danger (i.e. geese into airplane engines), rather away from it. Interestingly, birds of prey, such as owls, have asymmetrically placed ears to facilitate the location of prey. Sound received by one ear and at a slightly different time than the other ear helps the birds determine the direction of sound.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy Thanksgiving from Outdoor Herbivore


Wild Turkeys in Western NC – take by Ken Thomas of

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