Wild Turkey – 8 Fast Facts You Didn’t Know

by Bob Robb

Wild turkeys are fascinating creatures. Do you know why? 

only gobblers have beards-mostly 336x340

Only gobblers have beards (mostly), although an estimated 10-20 percent of hens have beards.

With so many wild turkeys in America that they’ve become a nuisance in many urban and suburban areas, many of today’s turkey hunters have a hard time imagining that only a generation ago – back in the early 1930’s – the wild turkey in America was near extinction.

Lack of quality habitat was the key culprit in the past, but since the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, hunters have been paying an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, which funds wildlife restoration programs. Some of that money has helped restore wild turkeys and wild turkey habitat. Couple that with the invention of the rocket net, and wildlife agencies and the National Wild Turkey Federation (www.NWTF.org) can readily and easily trap and transfer turkey populations to areas of suitable habitat. That’s the big reason numbers today have skyrocketed.

Yep, from only about 30,000 turkeys in the early 1900’s to nearly 7 million today… now that is a conservation story!

eastern wild turkey 448x299

Of the 5 wild turkey subspecies in North America the Eastern is the most populous, with an estimated 5.1-5.3 million birds throughout its range.

The wild turkey is a fascinating creature, one that Benjamin Franklin recommended be named the United States’ national bird instead of the bald eagle. Here are some fast facts about Meleagris gallopavo that will amaze your friends!

  1. Between 5000 and 6000 feathers cover the body of an adult turkey in patterns called feather tracts. A turkey’s feathers provide a variety of survival functions – they keep them warm and dry, allow them to fly, and enable them to show off for the opposite sex. The head and upper part of the neck are featherless. Most outer feathers exhibit a metallic glittering, called iridescence, with varying colors of red, green, copper, bronze and gold.
  2. Only males have spurs. Both sexes have powerful legs covered with scales and are born with a small button spur on the back of the leg. Soon after birth, a male’s spurs start growing pointed and curved and can grow to about two inches. Most hens’ spurs almost never grow any longer.
  3. Mostly, only gobblers have beards. A gobbler’s beard is really tufts of filaments, or modified feathers, growing out from the chest. A “jake” (which is a one-year old gobbler) usually has a beard of 3-4 inches in length, while a 2-year old gobbler has a 7-9 inch beard. Older gobblers have beards of 10-plus inches. A mature gobbler will have a beard that is about 9 inches, though they can grow much longer. Worth noting: As many as 10 percent of hens have beards.

    jill and wayne shelby with osceola turkey 448x298

    Osceola turkeys are found only in parts of Florida. Jill & Wayne Shelby are thrilled with Jill’s first.

  4. Wild turkeys have excellent daytime vision, but they can’t see worth beans at night.
  5. Turkeys are fast. They can run at speeds up to 25 mph, and can fly up to 55 mph.
  6. Hen turkeys lay a “clutch” of 10-12 eggs over a 10-14 day period, usually laying one egg per day. Eggs are incubated for about 28 days, occasionally turning and rearranging them until they are ready to hatch. A newly-hatched flock must be ready to leave the nest within 12 to 24 hours to feed.
  7. Turkeys prefer feeding in the afternoon, though they also feed during morning hours as well.
  8. The most common of five subspecies in North America, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, is the Eastern (an estimated 5.1-5.3 million). It has the largest range of all subspecies. Next most common is the Rio Grande (1.25 million); Merriam’s (350,000); Osceola, or Florida turkey (100,000) and Gould’s (less than 5000).

Wild turkeys are fascinating, beautiful, and they represent one of the most successful wildlife conservation stories across North America’s landscape.


About Bob Robb

bob-robb-head-shotFor over two decades, Bob’s articles and photographs have appeared in most major outdoor magazines. Currently he is editor of Whitetail Journal and Predator Xtreme magazines. Bob was founding editor of Petersen’s Bowhunting magazines, and the author of many books, including The Field & Stream Bowhunting Handbook, and The Ultimate Guide to Elk Hunting.  Bob sees the value of super-sharp, lightweight Havalon knives.

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