Creature Feature: Wild Turkey

What bird is native to North America and has a distinctive gobble call?

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Three wild turkeys stand together in the woodland. Photo by M. Williams Woodbridge

Today’s featured creature, of course! Today we’re highlighting the wild turkey in celebration of Thanksgiving.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Meleagris gallopavo
  • Family Name:  Phasianidae
  • Classification: Bird
  • Habitat:  Woodlands
  • Diet: Omnivore (Favorite foods include: plants and animals, including nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and even salamanders!)
  • Size: Body, 3.6 to 3.8 ft; wingspan, 4.1 to 4.8 ft
  • Weight: 5.5 to 18.8 lbs
  • Average Life Span: 3 to 4 years
  • Status: Not Endangered (but it wasn’t always so, read on)

Did you know? Benjamin Franklin suggested that the wild turkey represent the new United States of America as the national bird because he believed it was a Bird of Courage!

Turkey may be a popular main course on plates all over the U.S. on Thanksgiving day, but what’s this silly looking bird all about? You’re apt to recognize a turkey by its ruffled feathers, fanlike tail, bare head, and bright beard. But did you know that those features are only the half of it? The male turkeys display the features we recognize; females are much more plain, as is common in the bird world.

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A wild turkey hen in Watoga State Park, West Virginia. Photo by James P. Blair

Wild turkeys typically live in mother and child flocks. Mother turkeys can lay between 4 and 17 eggs and they feed their chicks for only a few days after they hatch. Then the young turkeys are on their own, and they must learn quickly how to fend for themselves.

The wild turkey originally roamed North America’s forest and woodland areas. Native Americans hunted this fowl for food, and Europeans did the same when they arrived on the continent. Eventually by the 20th century, the wild turkey population had dwindled. Humans impacted the wild turkey’s woodland habitats as they developed land into homesteads. Hunting also made it difficult for wild turkey flocks to thrive.

Luckily for us, turkey reintroduction programs emerged in the 1940s. Birds were brought all over the U.S and other parts of the world to areas with recovering woodlands. The programs worked well, and wild turkeys now roam in areas that were unknown to them before the Europeans arrived in North America. For example, you can find wild turkeys in Hawaii, Europe, and even New Zealand.

Consider how you might talk to your kids or students about this iconic bird and its importance in our history and diet. How did humans impact the wild turkey population? Are there other animals that were impacted by the arrival of Europeans in North America?  And most importantly, what makes wild turkey a staple food for Thanksgiving dinner today?

More related resources from National Geographic Education

This Day in Geographic History: 1863 – Thanksgiving

Read more about the wild turkey on the National Geographic website.

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