Outdoor Articles

Introduction To Wild Turkeys

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Turkey Hunting

Family: Phasianidae
Genus: Meleagris
Species: gallopavo

There were originally six subspecies of the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in North America and one related species, the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) in Central America. The originally discovered subspecies (M. gallopavo gallopavo) is now extinct due to hunting. Of the other five subspecies only the Gould’s Turkey is in danger. It occurs in extreme southwest New Mexico, southeast Arizona and adjacent regions of Mexico. This subspecies is listed on the endangered species list and hunting is limited/prohibited in the United States.

Subspecies Distribution

The Eastern Turkey (M. g. silvestris) is the most widely distributed subspecies and occurs east of the Missouri river to the eastern shore of the United states, in parts of Minnesota, the eastern third of Kansas and Oklahoma, eastern Texas and northern Florida. The Florida subspecies (M. g. osceola) occurs in the southern portion of Florida. The Rio Grande (M. g. intermedia) occurs mainly in the western portions of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, with transplants in small portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and South Dakota. The Merriam’s (M. g. merriami) occurs in South Dakota, and portions of most of the mountain states from Canada to Mexico. Hybrid or interbred turkeys are found in areas where two or more subspecies occur; these birds may exhibit characteristics of one or the other subspecies, both subspecies or in between.


Generally speaking, the Eastern turkey is found in open, mixed hardwood and pine forests, the Osceola is found in the subtropical regions of Florida, the Rio Grande in scattered brush land of the southwest, and the Merriam’s and Gould’s in pine forests of the southwest. Turkeys prefer to roost in trees larger than the surrounding vegetation and will often choose roost sites on east facing slopes out of the prevailing winds. Because sight is a main means of defense against predators for turkeys, they use open fields and meadows as feeding and strutting sites, and wooded areas roosting sites. Strutting sites are often traditional, used year after year by successive birds.



Turkeys eat a wide range of foods including succulent grasses and forbes, insects, leftover grains, fruits of the grape, cherry and black gum, seeds including mast crops of acorns, pine nuts and juniper (cedar) berries, and new growth agricultural crops. In the winter turkeys rely heavily on acorns and seeds; branch tips of brush and trees; leftover grain crops; and will feed heavily in fields where manure has been spread; at corn cribs and feedlots; and at silage piles. In the early spring turkeys often rely on leftover grain in agricultural fields. Once the weather warms and new green growth appears they will begin feeding in pastures, river and creek bottoms, and hayfields, where they eat green forage and search for insects. Hens often seek out sources of calcium (such as land snails) for egg production in the spring.


The availability and location of roosting sites is a determining factor in turkey use of the habitat. If few or no roosting sites are available turkeys may leave the area or not use it. They prefer to roost in heavy timber in ravines if possible; where they can be out of strong prevailing winds in winter, but they will roost in trees open to the wind. Roost sites are often located over or near water in the south.

Scientific studies have shown that turkeys often roost on an east or south facing slope, about a third of the way down the slope where the winds are calm. East and south facing slopes also receive the earliest sunlight, allowing the birds to warm-up and be able to see early in the morning. In one study roost sites were often within one half mile of water, and five hundred yards of a meadow. This could be attributed to the fact that turkeys often feed before going to roost in the evening, and they don’t travel far at dusk. The preferred roosts in the study were mature trees with open crowns giving the turkeys room to fly into the trees and move around. They also preferred trees with large horizontal limbs to roost on.

In western areas turkeys use fir, pine, spruce, cottonwood and large aspen trees as roosts. Eastern birds often choose pines, elm, maple, box elder, large oak, and cottonwood. Mature toms often choose pines because the pines can reduce wind speeds by 50-70 percent. Eastern turkeys generally have several roost sites in their home range, and they may use different sites on successive nights. In limited and poor habitat, Merriam’s turkeys often roost in the same trees on a regular basis.


Vision scientist, Dr. Jay Neitz believes that birds see in trichromatic color like humans, and that many birds actually see four colors. He also believes that some birds see ultraviolet light as a different color than any of the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue seen by humans. Birds detect ultraviolet light in low light conditions that humans can’t, especially birds that are night predators.

Because turkeys are a prey species their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide field of vision. But, because of their wide spaced eyes, turkeys sacrifice depth perception; they see very little in front of them with both eyes at the same time. As turkeys walk, their heads move back and forth, giving them two different angles of an object, which helps them determine the distance of the object. Because of their poor depth perception, turkeys have difficulty determining the relative size of objects.


Birds ears are also located on the sides of their heads, and because they have no outer ear with a cup to enhance the sound in one direction, they hear sounds all the way around them. Sound received by one ear but not by the other ear helps the birds determine which direction the sounds come from, but not the distance of the sound. Loud sounds generally come from closer range than quieter sounds, and cause turkeys to become alert.

This makes it clear why prey species with widely spaced eyes and ears give an alarm signal first, often try to verify the danger with both their eyes and ears, and then flee. If they don’t know which direction the danger came from they need to verify the danger, and direction, before fleeing; or they may actually flee into, rather than away from danger.


Mammalian prey species (deer, elk, sheep, etc.) that have a highly developed sense of smell can determine the direction of danger by scent and wind direction. They generally flee down or crosswind, knowing they are fleeing away from danger, not toward it. Because birds have a poor sense of smell they need to rely heavily on both their eyes and ears to determine the direction of danger before they flee from it.


Turkeys leave a variety of signs as indication of their presence, and their tracks are usually the most evident sign. Adult turkey tracks range from 2-3 inches in length, hens up to 2 1/8 inches and toms 2 ΒΌ inches and longer. Mature toms leave a wider and deeper middle toe imprint, often with the scales of the toes showing. Turkey droppings can be found under roosts, in feeding areas and along travel routes. Hen droppings are pencil size or larger, and bulbous or spiral in shape; tom droppings are straight or “J” shaped. Piles of droppings under large trees indicate roost sites. Dropped feathers, wing scrapes in strutting areas and the shallow depressions of dusting bowls are all evidence of turkeys use. V shaped scratches in dirt or leaf-litter is evidence of feeding turkeys.

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