Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo

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Photo of male wild turkey walking in mowed grass
Adult male wild turkeys are very large and dark with a bare, red and blue head, with red wattles on the throat and neck.
David Stonner
Family

Phasianidae (pheasants) in the order Galliformes

Description

Adult males are very large and dark with a bare, red and blue head, with red wattles on the throat and neck. They have long legs. The feathers are bronzy and iridescent. Males, and some females, have a tuft of hairlike feathers (a “beard”) in the middle of the breast. Females are smaller and less iridescent. Turkeys are most famous for their gobbling calls, but they make many other vocalizations as well.

Size

Length: 48 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of female wild turkey walking on grass
Wild Turkey Female
Female wild turkeys (hens) are smaller and less iridescent than males. After mating, the females care for the young alone.

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Photo of a male wild turkey in typical habitat
Wild Turkey Male
A popular gamebird, the wild turkey is found in mixed forests and grasslands statewide.

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Photo of female wild turkey walking in winter woods
Wild Turkey Female
Successful management of wild turkey populations focuses on proper seasonal combinations of food, cover, and water.

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Photo of two male wild turkeys displaying
Wild Turkey (Displaying Males)

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Photo of several wild turkey hen poults in grassy field
Wild Turkey Hen Poults
Young turkey and other fowl are called poults.

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Video of a wild turkey.

Wild Turkey

Male wild turkeys make a gobbling sound, especially during mating season in the spring.
Habitat and conservation

A popular gamebird, the wild turkey is found in mixed forests and grasslands statewide. Like other ground nesters, their reproductive success may be greatly reduced by extensive precipitation at nesting time. In the 1950s, populations in the state were at an all-time low of fewer than 2,500 birds in 31 counties; in 2004, hunters checked nearly 61,000 turkeys. Successful management focuses on proper seasonal combinations of food, cover, and water.

Foods

Wild turkeys forage by scratching in the leaves beneath hedgerows and leafy areas in forests. Acorns are the most important food, particularly in winter, but grass seeds, dogwood fruits, wild grapes, corn, oats, and wheat are important, too. Young turkeys eat mainly insects, which provide greater protein for their rapid growth.

image of Wild Turkey distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide; most abundant in the Ozark Border, Glaciated Plains, and Ozark Natural Divisions.

Status

Uncommon permanent resident (rare in Osage Plains and in Mississippi Lowlands except along forested rivers).

Life cycle

Turkeys flock in winter. In spring, male turkeys (toms) begin gobbling to announce themselves to males and to attract females. Males perform elaborate strutting displays for females, spreading their tails like a peacock and puffing out their feathers. After mating, females care for the young alone, creating shallow nests on the ground. They lay about 10–14 eggs over a period of days, then incubate them for about a month. The precocial young are able to leave the nest within a day of hatching.

Human connections

As one of the most popular gamebirds, turkeys are the main target of a large segment of the hunting industry. Humans are the turkey’s leading predator.

Ecosystem connections

Many animals feed on the eggs and young of wild turkeys, and several predators feed on adults as well as young. The turkeys, in turn, are steady grazers on seeds, nuts, insects, and other foods.