The Wild Turkey

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be nice to pay some appreciation to the quintessential Christmas meat – the turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a fascinating, ground-dwelling bird native to North America, and carries a huge historical significance. Their name originates from Britain, whereby domesticated turkeys were being imported to Britain in ships arriving from a region in and around the country of Turkey.

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An adult male turkey displaying his magnificent plumage.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous birds that typically feed on forest floors, consuming a varied diet of nuts, seeds, insects, fruits and salamanders. They prefer hardwood forests with scattered openings such as marshes, swamps, grasslands, fields and orchards.

Prior to America’s colonisation, the Native Americans regularly hunted wild turkeys for their undoubtedly delicious meat. When Europeans arrived, they quickly domesticated the birds and wild turkeys were unsustainably hunted, causing their numbers to plummet during the 19th and 20th century, and their status became increasingly insecure. Thankfully, in the 1940s, reintroduction programmes began which established new populations in recovering forests and woodlands across North America.

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An adult male (left) and female (right) competing in a staring contest.

Male and female turkeys are dissimilar in appearance, exhibiting a range of different characteristics (this is known as sexual dimorphism). Adult males, also called toms or gobblers, are much larger than females, known as hens, and have a thick, glossy black plumage, sometimes showing areas of purple, red, copper and bronze. They also have a white-tipped tail which becomes fanned out when displaying to a potential partner. However, most noticeably, males have an intense bald, reddish head with red wattles drooping down from their throat and neck. Additionally, they flaunt a long, red fleshy flap over their beak – called a snood. In contrast, female turkeys have a duller plumage of brown and grey tones and lack many of the distinctive characteristics of the males.

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A lone female turkey.

Males can weigh up to 10kg, whereas females seldom exceed 5kg. Despite their relatively large weight, wild turkeys are agile, fast flyers and can comfortably traverse through the obstacles in their woodland habitat. Wild turkeys share their habitat with a plethora of predators including coyotes, gray wolves, cougars, bobcats, Canadian lynx, black bears and eagles – but these seemingly slow-witted birds are not completely defenceless. Adult turkeys, especially males, can be quite aggressive to potential threats; they may kick, bite or even ram in order to deter predators. Surprisingly, wild turkeys can run 40 kilometres per hour in short bursts – nearly as fast as Usain Bolt’s maximum sprinting speed.

I hope this post allowed you to learn a bit more about the turkey, and gave you a greater appreciation for their lifestyle, unique characteristics and abilities. Happy Holidays!

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