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Wild Turkey

A large game bird species with a distinctive bare, red head and neck, a brown and black plumage, and a preference for wooded areas and grasslands across much of North America. It is known for its impressive courtship displays and its importance as a traditional Thanksgiving meal in the United States.

As a large and tasty game bird, the Wild Turkey was at one time overhunted, and much of its habitat was lost. It became quite rare for a time, but better regulation of hunting, better habitat management, and extensive reintroduction efforts have combined to make the Wild Turkey abundant today, even in areas where it was not historically common.

Wild Turkeys are very social, and during winter can gather in flocks numbering into the hundreds of birds. They have excellent hearing and eyesight, and generally prefer to run from danger rather than fly. Wild Turkeys have large clutches and high annual mortality rates, although a few wild birds are known to have lived more than ten years.

Description of the Wild Turkey


The Wild Turkey is a very large game bird with strong legs, plumage richly colored with dark bronze, green, black, and copper colors, a bare head and neck, and a long, broad tail.

Males are considerably larger, more colorful, and have an erectile lappet that hangs down over the beak. They also have a beard or brush of modified feathers that hangs from their chest, and their tail is sometimes held upright and fanned out for display.

Wild Turkey


Females are smaller and plainer, with mostly brown plumage, and lack the lappet and often the beard of the males.


Female wild turkey from the side.

Seasonal change in appearance



Very young juveniles are similar in appearance to most gallinaceous birds at that age, being colored in soft browns, yellows, and black.  Older young are mostly brown and rather plain.


Wild Turkeys can be found in a variety of habitats across the country, including oak woods, pine-oak forest, mesquite grasslands, and chaparral.


Wild Turkeys eat a wide variety of foods, including acorns, seeds, leaves, berries, insects, and even frogs or snakes.


Wild Turkeys forage primarily on the ground, scratching to locate food items, though they will also pluck berries from within trees or sturdy shrubs.


Wild Turkeys were much diminished in population in the early 20th century, though reintroduction efforts have been very successful and they are now fairly common across much of the eastern U.S. and parts of the west. The population has increased dramatically in recent decades.

Fun Facts

Benjamin Franklin advocated that the Wild Turkey be made the U.S. national symbol, though the Bald Eagle was eventually selected.

Wild Turkeys prefer to run from danger, but if pressed or startled they can explode into flight rapidly and noisily despite their large size.

Wild Turkeys usually roost in trees at night.

A group of turkeys may be called either a gaggle, flock, rafter, or even a death row.


Male Wild Turkeys give a gobble that most people are familiar with from barnyard turkeys. Females give a sharp “yuk” call or a slow series of whining notes.

Similar Species

  • Wild Turkeys are much larger than any other native game bird, and are unlikely to be confused with any other North American bird.


The nest is a shallow depression in the ground lined with leaves or grass.

Number: Usually lay 10-15 eggs.
Color: Whitish or buff with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 28 days, and leave the nest soon after hatching. They can make short flights at about 2 weeks, and continue to associate with the adults for some months.

Bent Life History of the Wild Turkey

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Wild Turkey – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

[Current A.O.U. = Wild Turkey]

The wild turkey of the mountain regions of the Southwestern United States and extreme northwestern Mexico was described by Dr. E. W. Nelson (1900) and named in honor of Dr. C. Hart Merriam. He has characterized it as follows: “Distinguished from M. g. fera by the whitish tips to feathers of lower rump, tail-coverts, and tail; from M. g. mexicana by its velvety black rump and the greater amount of rusty rufous succeeding the white tips on tail-coverts and tail, and the distinct black and chestnut barring of middle tail feathers.”

Nelson showed in the same paper that the ancestors of our domestic turkeys were neither of the forms that we now call merriami and inter’,nedia but the more southern, strictly Mexican form, M. gabpavo gallopavo.

That this wild turkey is not nearly so abundant as it was 50 years ago is shown by the following quotation from Henry W. Henshaw (1874)

The wild turkey Is found abundantly from Apache throughout the mountainous portIon of Southeastern Arizona. In New Mexico it was met with further to the north, in the mountains, and I was informed by Colonel Alexander that he had found them in large numbers in the Raton Mountains, in extreme Northern New Mexico. It breeds abundantly through the White Mountains, Arizona, and about the middle of August several broods of the young, about twothirds grown, were met with. Toward the head of the Qua, In New Mexico, the canons, in November, were found literally swarming with these magnificent birds; in many places the ground being completely tracked up where they had been running. As many as eleven were killed by the members of a party during a day’s march.

Nesting: Two brief notes by Major Bendire (1892) are all that he gives us on the nesting habits of this turkey, which are probably not very different from those of other wild turkeys. He quotes William Lloyd as saying that ” near a river their nests would be made on small inlets surrounded by reeds; on the hills in shin-oak clumps.” He says that Frank Stephens found a nest on the east slope of the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, “in the oak timber, just where the first scattering pines commenced, at an altitude of perhaps 500 feet. It was placed close to the trunk of an oak tree on a hillside, near which a good-sized yucca grew, covering, apparently, a part of the nest; the hollow in which the eggs were placed was about 12 inches across and 3 inches deep.”

Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1928) says the nest is “on the ground in tall thick weeds or briers, lined with grass, weeds, and leaves.”

0. W. Howard (1900) found a nest in the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona, which he describes as follows:

The nest was in the bed of the canon at the base of the hill, in a natural depression in the soft earth at the side of a rock, and just under a large white oak tree. The nest had a lining of leaves and small twigs, with a few feathers from the old bird scattered about. The nest was about a mile above the place where I had seen the first bird and at about 7,000 feet elevation. Strange to say, the nest was within a stone’s throw and in plain sight from a well-traveled traiL

Eggs: The eggs are indistinguishable from those of other wild turkeys. The measurements of 16 eggs average 65.8 by 47.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 70.5 by 49, 61.7 by 46.7, and 64.5 by 46 millimeters.

Food: Mis. Bailey (1928) lists the food of this turkey as follows:

In winter pinyon nuts, acorns, and juniper berries; in summer flower buds, grass and other seeds, wild oats, wild strawberries, mauzanita berries, rose haws, fruit of wild mulberry and prickly pear, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, caterpillars, ants, and other insects. In New Mexico “the crop of a Merriam Turkey killed February 10 on Haut Creek contained 76 juniper berries, 25 pinyon nuts, 6 acorns, 30 soft worms an inch long, grass blades and some rock. The crop of a gobbler, weighing about 30 pounds and shot March 25 out of a flock of 50 in the Black Mountains, contained 30 pinyon nuts and 215 juniper berries” (Ligon). The stomach of a specimen collected near the southern end of the range contained fully a half pint of the fruiting panicles of grass (Muhlenberg~z), a few seeds of Bromus, and some grass blades comprising 55 per cent; pinyon pine and other pine seeds, 45 per cent. In some localities considerate ranchmen plant small patches of oats for turkey food (Ligon).

Mrs. Bailey quotes Charles SpAnger as saying:

At times, and particularly in years when there are few or no nuts, the principal food of the Merriam Turkey is wild rye, which is plentiful in the canyons and draws in our mountains and foothills. On the Suree I have often seen wild Turkeys eating the short blades of Kentucky blue grass which grows wild along the canyon near the stream and remains green all winter. One of the most important winter foods of the Merriam Turkey is the red kinickinick berry which grows on the high ridges and plateaus in our mountains. When acorns, pinyon, and pine nuts, and other foods may be burled deep under snow, the Turkeys may find kinickinick berries on the high ridges and high places from which the snow blows off. Mason Chase tells about the wild Turkeys hunting out, or at least finding and appropriating, caches of nuts made by rodents. He says this occurred during a time when deep snow covered up aR the Turkey’s food except the buds of shrubs.

Dr. C. Hart Merriam (1890) found it on San Francisco Mountain, Ariz., feeding on wild gooseberries in the balsam belt in August and on pinyon nuts in the cedar belt in September. Major Bendire (1892) says that it also eats the fruits of the giant cactus, “which is alike a favorite article of food with man, bird and beast.”

Behavior: Henshaw (1874) writes:

They roost at night In the large cotton-woods by the streams, and soon after daylight, having visited the stream, they usually betake themselves to the dry hills, where they feed, in the fall, at least, almost exclusively upon the seeds of grasses and grasshoppers. I think they return once or twice during the day to drink, the dry nature of their food rendering a copious supply of water necessary. In these wilds, they appear to be wholly unsuspiclous, and without knowledge of danger from man, and, if not shot at, will allow one to get within a few yards without manifesting any distrust. They rareiy fly, except when very hard pressed, but, when alarmed, run with such rapidity as to Quickly outstrip the fleetest foot, betaking themselves to the steep sides of the ravines, which they easily scale, and soon elude pursuit. Apparently, the only dangers they have to fear in these regions are from birds of prey, which attack the young, but more especially from the panthers. In certain portions of the Gila Canyon the tracks of these animals were very numerous, and always these sections appeared to have been entirely depopulated of Turkeys, an occasional pile of feathers marking the spot where one had fallen a victim to one of these animals.

Range (entire species) : Southern Ontario; the Eastern, Central, and Southern United States, including the southern Rocky Mountain region; and Mexico, except the extreme western and southern parts.

The range of the wild turkey has been greatly restricted since the advent of civilization, so that the species is now extirpated throughout New England and the Great Plains. It is still common locally in Pennsylvania (largely through introductions) and in some of the Southern States, as South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The complete range of the species extended north to Arizona (Bill Williams Mountain, and San Francisco Mountain); formerly Colorado (Coventry, Salida, and Buckhorn); formerly Nebraska (Valentine); formerly southeastern South Dakota (Cedar Island, Fort Randall, Yankton, and Vermilion); formerly Iowa (Grant City, Ames, and Fort Atkinson); formerly southern Wisconsin (Newark, Lake Koshkonong, Waukesha, and Racine); formerly southern Michigan (Grand Rapids, Locke, and Reece); formerly southern Ontario (Mitchells Bay, Plover Mills, and Dundas); formerly northern New York (Niagara County); and probably formerly southern Maine (Mount Desert Island). East to probably formerly southern Maine (Mount Desert Island); formerly Massachusetts (Ipswich, Montague, and Mount Ilolyoke); formerly Connecticut (Northford); formerly New Jersey (Sussex County, Raccoon, and Cape May County); Virginia (Neabsco Creek and Ashland); North Carolina (Walke and the Cape Fear River); South Carolina (Georgetown, Santee, Mount Pleasant, and Charleston); Georgia (Riceboro, MacIntosh, Cumber land Island, and St. Marys); eastern Florida (Port Orange, Oak Hill, Malabar, Fort Kissimmee, and Evergiade); Tamaulipas (Soto la Marina and Forlon); and Vera Cruz (Zacuapan, Mirador, and Soledad). South to Vera Cruz (Soledad and Paso del Macho); Hidalgo (Real del Monte); and Michoacan (La Salada). West to Michoacan (La Salada); Durango (Durango and El Salto) ; Chihuahua (Colonia Garcia and Cajon Bonito); and Arizona (formerly Huachuca Mountains, formerly Santa Catalina Mountains, . Salt River Bird Reservation, Sierra Ancha, Baker Butte, Apache Maid Mountain, and Bill Williams Mountain).

The range as above described is for the entire species, which has, however, been divided into four subspecies. The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris g. 8ilVeStris) ranged over the entire eastern part of the country north of central Florida and west to eastern Texas, central Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma; the Florida turkey (M. g. osceola) ranges through southern Florida; the Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia). is found in central and southern Texas, chiefly between the Brazos and Pecos Rivers, north to the Staked Plains, and in northeastern Mexico; and Merriam’s turkey (M. g. merriami) is found in mountainous regions in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, ranging also into western Texas and northern Mexico.

Wild turkeys have been restored to parts of the range from which they had been exterminated, notably in Pennsylvania. They also have been carried north successfully as far as Minnesota (State game farm at Minneapolis).

Egg dates: Michigan: 3 records, February 10 and May 5 and 6. Pennsylvania: 5 records, May 5 to June 30. South Carolina and Georgia: 15 records, March 30 to May 25; 8 records, April 25 to May 22. Missouri and Arkansas: 8 records, April 3 to June 2. Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas (silve8tris): 20 records, April 9 to July 25; 10 records, May 3 to 16. Arizona, Mexico, and New Mexico (merriami) : 7 records, April 8 to May 8. Texas and Mexico (interinedia): 23 records, March 4 to June 28; 12 records, May 1 to June 3. Florida (osceola): 15 records, March 25 to May 22; 8 records, April 10 to May 3.

EASTERN TURKEY [Current A.O.U. = Wild Turkey]


When the noble red man roamed and hunted unrestrained throughout the virgin forests of eastern North America, this magnificent bird, the wild turkey, another noble native of America, clad in a feathered armor of glistening bronze, also enjoyed the freedom of the forests from Maine and Ontario, southward and westward. But tho coming of the white man to our shores spelled the beginning of the end for both of these picturesque Americans. The forests disappeared before the white man’s ax, his crude firearms waged warfare on the native game, and the red man was gradually eliminated before advancing civilization. In the days of the Pilgrims and Puritans the Thanksgiving turkey was easily obtained almost anywhere in the surrounding forest; the delicious meat of the wild turkey was an important and an abundant food supply for both Indians and settlers; and the feathers of the turkey held a prominent place in the red man’s adornment.

Thomas Morton (1637), one of the earliest writers, says:

Turkies there are, which divers times in great flocks have sallied by our doores; and then a gunne, being commonly in a redinesse, salutes them with such a courtesie, as makes them take a turne in the Cooke roome. They daunce by the doore so well.

They soon began to disappear, however, for John Josselyn (1672) writes:

I have also seen threescore broods of young Turkies on the side of a marsh, sunning of themselves in a morning betimes, but this was thirty years since, the English and the Indians having now destroyed the breed, so that ’tis very rare to meet with a wild Turkie in the Woods.

Edward H. Forbush (1912) says:

In Massachusetts Turkeys were most numerous in the oak and chestnut woods, for there they found most food. They were so plentiful in the hills bordering the Connecticut valley that in 1711 they were sold In Hartford at one shilling four pence each, and in 1717 they were sold in Northampton, Mass., at the same price. From 1730 to 1735 the price of those dressed was in Northampton about one and one-half penny per pound. After 1766 the price was two and one-half pence, and in 1788, three pence. A few years after 1800 it was four pence to six pence a pound, and about 1820, when the birds had greatly decreased, the price per pound was from ten to twelve and one-half cents.

Wild turkeys made their last stand in Massachusetts in the Holyoke range, where the last one was killed in 1851. According to Dr. D. D. Slade (1888) these birds had the range of a large tract of wild mountkinous country, in some parts almost inaccessible and impassable, lying at the base of and comprising Mount Holyoke, and to the Southwest also including Mount Tom and its surroundings. I am unable to state the exact period at which tbls floek became exterminated but should say it must have been in 1840 or thereabouts.

The last turkey in Connecticut was seen in 1813, a few remained hidden in the Vermont Hills until 1842, and they were said to be numerous along the southern border of Ontario as late as 1856. Albert H. Wright (1914 and 1915) has written a very complete account of the early history of the wild turkey to which the reader is referred. Dr. Glover M. Allen (1921) also has given us a very full history of this bird in New England. Both of these exhaustive papers give far too much information to be included here. Audubon (1840) wrote, as to its status in his time:

The unsettled parts of the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana, an Immense extent of country to the north-west of these districts, upon the Mississippi and Missouri, and the vast regions drained by these rivers from their confluence to Louisiana, Including the wooded parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, are the most abundantly supplied with this magnificent bird. It is less plentiful in Georgia and the Carolinas, becomes still scarcer in Virginia and Pennsylvania, and Is now very rarely seen to the eastward of the last-mentioned States. In the course of my rambles through Long Island, the State of New York, and the country around the Lakes, I did not meet with a single Individual, although I was informed that some exist In those parts. At the time when I removed to Kentucky, rather more than a fourth of a century ago, Turkeys were so abundant, that the price of one In the market was not equal to that of a common barn fowl now. I have seen them offered for the sum of three pence each, the birds weighing from ten to twelve pounds. A first-rate Turkey, weighing from twenty-five to thirty pounds avoirdupois, was considered well sold when It brought a quarter of a dollar.

In the mountains of central Pennsylvania turkeys have always existed up to the present time. C. J. Pennock tells me that they “have multiplied greatly within the last 15 years,” but that most of the “stock has been intermixed with domestic birds.” This is largely due to the efforts of the game commission in controlling the hunting season and bag limits and by importing birds from other States or transferring them from a section where they are plentiful to one where they are scarce. A report of this has been published in some detail by Bayard H. Christy and George M. Sutton (1929).

NI. P. Skinner wrote to me in 1928:

The wild turkey is still found over most of North Carolina wherever there are undisturbed forests of the kind preferred by the turkey. In the sand hills there are still two or three groups living mostly in the swamps and river bottoms, and totaling perhaps 30 bIrds in all. They are resident and noninigratory.

In the sand hills, wild turkeys have largely retired to the deep swamps, for they prefer to roost only in trees standing in water; but quite often they feed out on the drier upland.

James G. Suthard says in his notes, sent to me in 1980:

This noble game bird formerly bred In Kentucky, at large, but at the present time has a very restricted range. It Is found In the areas bordering Virginia and Tennessee, In Taylor, Larue, and Hart Counties In central Kentucky, and also In the game preserve In Lyon and Trlgg Counties. I have some records for Fulton and Hickman Counties. It is possibly found straggling in other counties, but, because of its retiring habits, I have never seen It, nor do I have any authentic records other than those already mentioned. It breeds durlug April and May, sometimes late In June.

Wild turkeys are essentially woodland birds. When the Eastern States were largely covered with virgin forests, they ranged widely over the whole of these districts. As the land became cleared they often resorted to clearings, open fields, savannas, or meadows in search of grasshoppers, other insects, berries, and other foods. As their numbers were reduced by persistent hunting, they became very shy and were forced to retire to the wooded hills and mountains, where in many places they made their last stand. There are many hills and creeks named for this bird because turkeys were once common there. Turkeys are now found, in the Northern and Eastern States, only in the more remote and heavily wooded mountains, the wildest and least frequented forests, or the most inaccessible swamps, far from the haunts of man. In the Southern States they are much more abundant and more widely distributed. M. L. Alexander (1921) says of their haunts in Louisiana, which are typical:

The determining factor In the distribution of turkeys Is the occurrence of oaks, wild pecans, beech and other nut-bearing trees. It Is chiefly the oaks that attract them to the flatwoods type of river lands, while the beech, chinquapin, and certain species of oaks furnish the mast on the slopes of creeks, ravines and small rivers In pine regions. Dogwood, holly, black gum and huckleberry are among other trees and shrubs, growing chiefly on slopes and ridges, that furnish food for turkeys. Such food is not generally available, however, unless there Is sufficient undergrowth to protect the birds while they are feeding. Late In the winter, after the best of the berries and mast In the bottoms of the hill sections have been picked up, or washed out by the rains, the turkeys frequent southerly slopes, with a good cover of brush, scratching In the fallen leaves and other woodland debris for such seeds and insects as may be concealed there.

Courtship: The courtship display of the turkey gobbler is too well known to need any description here. The wild turkey’s display is similar, with the same expansion of body plumage, erection and spreading of the fan-shaped tail, swelling of the naked head ornaments, and the drooping and rattling of the wing quills, accompanied by gobbling and strutting.

Audubon (1840) mentions a peculiar feature of the gobbler at this season, the “breast sponge,” which fills the upper part of the breast and crop cavity. This is a thick mass of cellular tissue, which serves as a reservoir of sweet, rich oil and fat, on which the gobbler draws to supply the loss of flesh and energy during the mating season.

The object of the display and the gobbling notes is, of course, to attract the females. Turkeys are polygamous, the gobbler having many mates and serving them all every day during the laying season until his vigor is exhausted. The females separate from the males before the mating season, and each hen comes to her favorite cock once each day, for a short time, during the laying season. She keeps the nest concealed from him and shuns him after the eggs are laid, lest he might break the eggs to prolong his sexual enjoyment. The gobbler often begins to display and gobble before he leaves his roosting tree. He gobbles, watches, and waits until he sees the hen approaching, or hears her responsive yelp or cluck. He flies down to the ground, struts and gobbles again, and waits for the hen to come to him. He probably knows how many hens he has in his harem and keeps on strutting and gobbling until he has served them all. He roosts in the vicinity and repeats the performance every day until the laying season is over or until he becomes emaciated and takes no further interest in the hens.

Audubon (1840), who had far better opportunities for observing the wild turkey than can ever be had again, writes:

I have often been much diverted, while watching two males in fierce conflict, by seeing them move alternately backwards and forwards, as either had obtained a better hold, their wings drooping, their tails partly raised, their bodyfeathers ruffled, and their heads covered with blood. If, as they thus struggle, and gasp for breath, one of them should lose his hold, his chance is over, for the other, still holding fast, bits him violently with spurs and wings, and In a few minutes brings him to the ground. The moment he is dead, the conqueror treads him under foot, but, what is strange, not with hatred, but with all the motions which he employs in cnressing the female.

When the male has discovered and made up to the female (whether such a combat has previously taken place or not), if she be more than one year old, she also struts and gobbles, turns round him as he continues strutting, suddenly opens her wings, throws herself towards him, as if to put a stop to his idle delay, lays herself down, and receives his dilatory caresses. If the cock meet a young hen, he alters his mode of procedure. He struts in a different manner, less pompously and more energetically, moves with rapidity, sometimes rises from the ground, taking a short flight around the hen, as is the manner of some Pigeons, the Red-breasted Thrush, and many other birds, and on alighting, runs with all his might, at the same time rubbing his tail and wings along the ground, for the space of perhaps ten yards. He then draws near the timorous female, allays her fears by purring, and when she at length assents, caresses her.

Nesting: Audubon says on this subject, referring to the Southem States:

About the middle of April, when the season is dry, the hens begin to look out for a place in which to deposit their eggs. This place requires to be as much as possible concealed from the eye of the Crow, as that bird often watches the Turkey when going to her nest, and, waiting in the neighbourhood until she has left it, removes and eats the eggs. The nest, which consists of a few withered leaves, is placed on the ground, in a hollow scooped out, by the side of a log, or in the fallen top of a dry leafy tree, under a thicket of suinach or briars, or a few feet within the edge of a canebrake, but always in a dry place. The eggs, which are of a dull cream colour, sprinkled with red dots, sometimes amount to twenty, although the more usual number is from ten to fifteen. When depositing her eggs, the female always approaches the nest with extreme caution, scarcely ever taking the same course twice; and when about to leave them, covers them carefully with leaves, so that It is very difficult for a person who may have seen the bird to discover the nest. Indeed, few Turkeys’ nests are found.

When an enemy passes within sight of a female, while laying or sitting she never moves, unless she knows that she has been discovered, but crouches lower until he has passed. I have frequently approached within five or six paces of a nest, of which I was previously aware, on assuming an air of carelessness, and whistling or talking to myself, the female remaining undisturbed; whereas if I went cautiously towards It, she would never suffer me to approach within twenty paces, but would run off, with her tail spread on one side, to a distance of twenty or thirty yards, when assuming a stately gait, she would walk ahout deliberately, uttering every now and thea a cluck. They seldom abandon their nest, when It has been discovered by men; but, I believe, never go near It again when a snake or other animal has sucked any of the eggs. If the eggs have been destroyed or carried off, the female soon yelps again for a male; but, In general, she rears only a single brood each season. Several hens sometimes associate together, I believe for their mutual safety, deposit their eggs In the same nest, and rear their broods together. I once found three sitting on forty-two eggs. In such cases, the common nest Is always watched by one of the females, so that no Crow, Raven, or perhaps even Pole-cat, dares approach It.

Bendire (1892) refers to nests found in Nebraska and Texas in more open situations. One is described as “a simple affair, on a grassy hillside, in an exposed position, and lined with dead grass.”

George M. Sutton (1929) describes a nest in Pennsylvania, as follows:

On June 6, on a rocky mountainside about twelve miles from Lock Haven, Clinton County, I examined a nest which held seventeen well-incubated eggs. On the day before there had been eighteen eggs In it; it Is thought that a skunk or fox had disturbed the nest, though the female bird evidently had been sitting closely most of the time. This nest was buIlt among small, angular rocks, and, while not very well hidden from above, It was screened on all sides by thick laurel, which made photography difficult. The female bird was either very unsuspicious or remarkably brave, for she did not leave her nest while we were near. Her broad back, with its squamate pattern and dull greenish lights, was difficult to discern among the foliage and the intricate Interlacing of shadows. When first seen her neck was stretched out at full length In front of her, and her plumage was spread and flattened out noticeably. When she realized she was being observed she drew her head hack and moved it slowly about In a snakelike manner, while she gave forth strange hissing and grunting sounds. When she had become accustomed to us she again stretched her neck out In front of her. Occasionally, when disturbed, she gave a characteristic quit, quit.

Eggs: The normal set for the wild turkey numbers from 8 to 15 eggs. The smaller sets are laid by young birds. As many as 18 or 20 eggs have been found in a nest, which were probably laid by one bird. Occasionally two, or even three, birds lay in the same nest, taking turns at incubating or guarding the nest; in such cases the nest may contain many more eggs.

The eggs are usually ovate in shape, but sometimes they are short ovate, or elongate ovate and quite pointed. The shell is smooth, with little or no gloss. The ground colors vary from “pale ochraceousbuff” or “pale pinkish buff” to “cartridge buff” or buffy white. They are more or less evenly marked with small spots and fine dots of “light vinaceous-drab,” “pale purple-drab,” “clay color,” or “pinkish buff.” The measurements of 56 eggs average 62.6 by 44.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 68.5 by 46, 64.5 by 48.5, 59 by 45, and 64.7 by 42.4 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is 28 days and this duty is performed by the female alone in seclusion. The male does not even know the location of the nest. The following is from Audubon’s (1840) matchless account:

The mother will not leave her eggs, when near hatching, under any circumstances, while life remains. She will even allow an enclosure to be made around her, and thus suffer imprisonment, rather than abandon them. I once witnessed the hatching of a brood of Turkeys, which I watched for the purpose of securing them together with the parent. I concealed myself on the ground within a very few feet, and saw her raise herself half the length of her legs, look anxiously upon the eggs, cluck with a sound peculiar to the mother on such occasions, carefully remove each half-empty shell, and with her bill caress and dry the young birds, that already stood tottering and attempting to make their way out of the nest. Yes; I have seen this, and have left mother and young to better care than mine could have proved, to the care of their Creator and mine. I have seen them all emerge from the shell, and, in a few moments after, tumble, roll, and push each other forward with astonishing and inscrutable Instinct.

Before leaving the nest with her young brood, the mother shakes herself in a violent manner, picks and adjusts the feathers about her belly, and assumes Quite a different aspect. She alternately Inclines her eyes obliquely upwards and sideways, stretching out her neck, to discover hawks or other enemies, spreads her wings a little as she walks, and softly clucks to keep her Innocent offspring close to her. They move slowly along and, as the hatching generally takes place in the afternoon, they frequently return to the nest to spend the first night there. After this they remove to some distance, keeping on the highest undulated grounds, the mother dreading rainy weather, which Is extremely dangerous to the young in this tender state, when they are only covered by a kind ef soft hairy down of surprising delicacy. In very rainy seasons, Turkeys are scarce, for if once completely wetted the young seldom recover. To prevent the disastrous effects of rainy weather the mother, like a skilful physician, plucks the buds of the spice-wood bush and gives them to her young.

In about a fortnight the young birds, which had previously rested on the ground, leave it and fly at night to some very large low branch, where they place themselves under the deeply curved wings of their kind and careful parent, dividing themselves for that purpose into two nearly equal parties. After this they leave the woods during the day and approach the natural glades or prairies in search of strawberries and subsequently of dewberries, blackberries, and grasshoppers, thus obtaining abundant food and enjoying the beneficial influence of the sun’s rays. They roll themselves in deserted ants’ nests to clear their growing feathers of the loose scales and prevent ticks and other vermin from attacking them, these insects being unable to bear the odor of the earth in which ants have been. The young Turkeys now advance rapidly in growth and In the month of August are able to secure themselves from unexpected attacks of Wolves, Foxes, Lynxes, and ex~en Cougars by rising quickly from the ground by the help of their powerful legs, and reaching with ease the highest branches of the tallest trees. The young cocks show the tuft on the breast about this time and begin to gobble and strut, while the young hens pur and leap in the manner which I have already described.

C. J. Pennock writes to me that in northern Florida, where the turkeys are somewhat intermediate but rather nearer the northern form, a cold, wet spell late in April or early in May produces considerable mortality among the young and that after such an unfavorable season turkeys are much scarcer for one or more years. The weather also has much to do with the time of laying. He has seen young able to fly as early as May 26 and a brood of very young as late as July 9. At times he has seen two hens together with their combined broods of 20 or more young. The young are able to fly up into the trees when about one-third grown. The broods of young remain with their mothers all through the winter and until the spring mating time comes.

Plumages: In the wild-turkey chick the crown is “pinkish cinnamon” and the back a somewhat lighter shade of the same, fading off to still lighter shades on the breast and flanks; the crown and upper parts are heavily spotted or blotched with dark, rich browns, “bister” to “Vandyke brown “; the sides of the head and underparts are pale pinkish buff to “ivory yellow,” nearly white on the chin and throat and almost “straw yellow” on the belly.

As with the quail and grouse, the young turkey starts to grow its wings when a small chick; these are soon followed by the plumage of the back, breast, and flanks; the tail comes later, followed finally by the head and belly. The juvenal feathers of the back are “walnut brown,” edged with “russet,” with a broad median “russet” stripe, a whitish tip, and large black areas near the tip; the wing coverts are similar, but in duller colors and with less black; the scapulars are “sayal brown,” peppered with black and spotted or barred with black along the outer edge and at the tip; the tertials and secondaries are “hair brown,” marked like the scapulars on the outer edge; the primaries are “hair brown,” mottled and peppered with huffy white; the underparts are “fuscous,” with whitish tips and shaft streaks; the tail is barred with dusky and ” pinkish cinnamon.~~

Before the young bird is fully grown, in September, a postjuvenal molt takes place; this is a complete molt, except that the two outer primaries on each wing are retained for a year. In this first winter plumage the sexes begin to differentiate, the males becoming much larger than the females, but the plumages of the two sexes are very much alike, and they resemble the adult female. Wilson (1832) says:

On the approach of the first winter the young males show a rudiment of the beard or fascicie of hairs on the breast, consisting of a mere tubercie, and attempt to strut and gobble; the second year the hairy tuft is about three inches long; in the third the turkey attains its full stature, although it certainly increases In size and beauty for several years longer.

Audubon’s (1840) statement is similar.

Wilson (1832) says of the female:

Females four years old have their full size and colouring; they then possess the pectoral fascicle, four or five inches long (which, according to Mr. Audubon, they exhibit a little in the second year, if not barren), but this fascicle Is much thinner than that of the male. The barren hens do not obtain this distinction until a very advanced age; and, being preferable for the table, the hunters single them from the flock and kill them in preference to the others. The female wild turkey is more frequently furnished with the hairy tuft than the tame one, end this appendage is gained earlier In life. The great number of young hens without it has no doubt given rise to the Incorrect assertion of a few writers that the female is-always destitute of It.

Adults apparently have only one complete postnuptial molt in August and September. A fully grown gobbler seldom weighs more than 20 or 25 pounds, even when in good condition; there are some, apparently authentic, records of birds weighing between 30 and 40 pounds,. but such cases must be very rare; reported records of 50 pounds are unreliable.

Food: Dr. Sylvester D. Judd (1905a) found that the stomachs and crops of 16 wild turkeys examined by the Biological Survey contained 15.57 percent of animal matter and 84.43 percent of vegetable matter. The animal food consisted of lnsects: 15.15 percent: and miscellaneous Invertebrates, such as spiders, snails, and myriapods: 0.42 percent. Grasshoppers furnished 13.92 percent, and beetles, files, caterpillars, and other insects 1.23 percent. The 84.43 percent of the bird’s vegetable food was distributed as follows: “Browse,” 24.80 percent; fruit, 32.98 percent; mast, 4.60 percent; other seeds, 20.12 percent; miscellaneous vegetable matter, 1.93 percent.

Judd says that they are very fond of grasshoppers and crickets, and that during the Nebraska invasion of Rocky Mountain locusts, Professor Aughey examined the contents of six wild turkey stomachs and crops collected during August and September. Every bird had eaten locusts, in all amounting to 259. The wild turkey has been known also to feed on the cotton worm (Alabariea argWaeetz), the leaf hoppers, and the leaf-eating beetles (Ohryaomela ai&tura~Z~a). The grasshopper (Armilia sp.) and the thousand-legs (Jt4us) form part of the turkey’s bill of fare. Tadpoles and small lizards also are included.

Of a bird shot in Virginia, he says:

Ten percent of its food was animal matter and 90 percent vegetable. The animal part consisted of 1 harvest spider (Phalangidae), 1 centipede, I thousand-legs (Juius), 1 ichneninon fly (Iohneumo,~ unifeeioulata), 2 yellow jackets (Vespa germanica), 1 grasshopper, and S katydids (C~,rtopAyflua peropicisLa~tu.s). The vegetable food was wild black cherries, grapes, berries of flowering dogwood and sour gum, 2 chestnuts, 25 whole acorns (Quercu.s palustris and Q. ixlutina), a few alder catkins, seeds of jewel weed, and 500 seeds of tick-trefoil (Mci bomia nudifio’ra). Another turkey, also shot in December, had eaten a ground beetle, an ichneumon fly, 2 wheel bugs, 10 yellowjackets, a meadow grasshopper, 75 red-legged grasshoppers, a few sour-gum berries, some pine seeds (with a few pine needles, probably taken accidentally), several acorns, a quarter of a cupful of wheat, and a little corn.

Various other kinds of berries, fruits, and insects are doubtless eaten when available, as turkeys will eat almost anything they can find in these lines.

Behavior: The turkey’s ordinary method of locomotion is walking or running; the long powerful legs enable these birds to travel long distances and very rapidly on foot. But they are also strong fliers when hard pressed or when necessity requires it, and can fly for a considerable distance or even across wide rivers. What few turkeys I have seen in flight looked to me like huge ruffed grouse, with long tails spread and heavy wings beating rapidly, though the speed of these large heavy birds is proportionately much less. Audubon (1840) says:

Their usual mode of progression Is what is termed walking, during which they frequently open each wing partially and successively, replacing them again by folding thorn over each other, as if their weight were too great. Then, as if to amuse themselves, they will run a few steps, open both wings and fan their sides, in the manner of the common fowl, and often take two or three leaps in the air and shake themselves. During melting snowfalls, they will travel to an extraordinary distance and are then followed In vain, it being impossible for hunters of any description to keep up with them. They have then a dangling and straggling way of running, which, awkward as It may seem, enables them to outstrip any other animal. I have often, when on a good horse, been obliged to abandon the attempt to put them up, after following them for several hours.

While traveling about during fall and winter the sexes gather into separate flocks, the females forming the largest flocks; young males also flock by themselves and, for the most part, keep away from the old gobblers. When flocks of old and young males happen to meet they do not ordinarily quarrel; but they seem to have different interests.

What few turkeys still survive, in regions where they are much hunted, have developed a high degree of shrewdness and cunning. An instance of cunning is given by Dr. J. M. Wheaton (1882) as follows:

As If aware that their safety depended on their preserving an Incognito when observed, they effect the unconcern of their tame relatives so long as a threatened danger is passive or unavoidable. I have known them to remain quietly perched upon a fence while a team pasGed by; and one occasion knew a couple of hunters to be so confused by the actions of a flock 0± five, which deliberately walked in front of them, mounted a fence, and disappeared leisurely over a low hill before they were able to decide them to be wild. No sooner were they out of sight, than they took to their legs and then to their wings, soon placing a wide valley between them and their now amazed and mortified pursuers.

Wild turkeys have a preference for roosting over water, and they will often go a long way in order to obtain such a roost. The backwater from the overflowing streams when it spreads out widely through the standing timber of the river bottoms, affords them great comfort; also the cypress ponds to be found in our southern river districts. They evidently fancy that there is greater safety in such places.

Voice: The wild turkey has quite a vocabulary, according to E. A. Mcllhenny (1914), a language with various meanings. If the strutting gobbler thinks he has heard the cluck and yelp of a calling hen, cluck, cluck, keow, keow, keow, he drops his broad wings, partly spreads his tail, and listens; then vut-v-r-r-o-o-o-m-m-~ comes the booming strut, and gil-obble-obble-obble. Then let the hen give her low quavering yelp, keow-keow, keow, and he will yell out in a fierce and prolonged rattle. More calls from the hen, keow, keow, kee, kee, or cluck, keow, ku-ku, one interspersed with loud gobblings, until the siren call of the hen, cut-o-r-r-r, cut, cut, keow, keow, keow, indicates that she has gone to him and all is quiet. Should any threatening danger intrude on this pretty love scene, a warning note is given, cluck, put, put, or put, o-r-r-r-r, or perhaps the turkeys walk quietly away saying, quit, quit, in irritated alarm.

Enemies: Although the eggs and young are preyed upon by many predatory animals and birds, it is only the larger species that are strong enough to attack an adult turkey. Audubon (1840) writes:

Of the numerous enemies of the Wild Turkey, the most formidable, excepting man, are the Lynx, the Snowy Owl, and the Virginian Owl. The Lynx sucks their eggs and is extremely expert at seizing both young and old, which he effects in the following manner. When he has discovered a flock of turkeys he follows them at a distance for some time, until be ascertains the direction In which they are proceeding. He then makes a rapid circular movement, gets in advance of the flock, and lays himself down in ambush until the birds come up, when he springs upon one of them by a single bound and secures it. While once sitting in the woods on the banks of the Wabash, I observed two large Turkey-cocks on a log by the river, pluming and picking themselves. I watched their movements for awhile, when of a sudden one of them flew across the river, while I perceived the other struggling under the grasp of a Lynx.

Game: It is probably safe to say that the wild turkey is the largest and grandest game bird in the world, certainly in North America. It is not so well known and not so popular as the quail or ruffed grouse, because comparatively few sportsmen have had an opportunity to hunt it, on account of its growing scarcity and the remoteness of its haunts. What few turkeys remain within easy reach of civilization have become so highly educated that it requires considerable experience and skill to outwit them. Their eyes can not easily recognize a stationary object, but they are very quick to detect the idightest movement. Their sense of hearing is very acute, and they are always on the alert for approaching enemies, especially human beings. As a food bird the turkey is unsurpassed both in quantity and quality.

The methods employed in hunting turkeys are, or have been, many and varied. An interesting method of capturing turkeys, in the days when they were plentiful and unsuspicious, was thus described by John Hunter in’ 1824, as quoted by Albert H. Wright (1914) in his excellent history of this bird:

The turkey is not valued, though when fat, the Indians frequently take them alive in the following manner. Having prepared from the skin an apt resemblance of the living bird, they follow the turkey trails or haunts till they discover a flock, when they secrete themselves behind a log In such a manner as to elude discovery, partially displaying their decoy, and Imitate the gobbling noise of the cock. This management generally succeeds to draw off first one and then another from their companions which, from their social and unsuspecting habits, thus successively place themselves literally in the hands of the hunters, who quickly despatch them and await for the arrival ot more. This species of hunting, with fishing, is more practiced by the boys than the older Indians, who seldom, in fact, undertake them unless closely pressed by hunger.

A common method of capture, referred to by many writers, was to trap them in an inclosure, or pen, made of logs. The top was covered with logs, leaving narrow open spaces between them. A trench was dug, sloping gradually down, under the log wall and up into the pen. Corn or other grain was sprinkled along this trench and plenty of it spread on the inside of the pen to tempt the turkeys to enter. When, after eating all they wanted, they attempted to escape, they constantly looked upward for an opening but seldom, if ever, had sense enough to crawl out the way they had come in. Large Ilumbers were caught in this way.

Audubon (1840) says that as many as 18 turkeys have been caught in a pen atï one time, and as many as 76 within a period of two months.

One of the most popular methods, which is still widely practiced, is calling the gobbler by imitating the call of the hen during the mating season. This requires the utmost skill, experience, practice, and thorough knowledge of the habits and haunts of the birds. Much has been written in various books and numerous articles in sporting magazines on how to succeed in this. The instruments used in calling may be simply the leaf of a tree held between the lips, the box or trough call, the splinter and slate, or a new clay pipe; but the commonest and most effective call is made from the wing bone of a hen turkey. The hunter must know how to use these perfectly, for a false note will drive the turkey away, perhaps never to return. He must also be able to keep perfectly still for a long time, with his gun, or rifle, trained on the spot where he expects the turkey to appear, for the slightest visible movement would spoil his chance. He would better be well concealed, but success may be had, even if he is in plain sight, if seated against a stump or tree large enough to conceal the outline of his body. As to the use of the calls, he had better study the various seductive notes of the hen, the turkey language, or, better still, learn them from an experienced hunter.

Tracking turkeys in the snow on a clear cold winter day is splendid sport. It has been well described by Edwyn Sandys (1904).

In following a flock of turkeys a single track may turn off to one side; this means a tired bird, which will soon crouch to rest. If he carries a shotgun, the hunter should follow this bird, for he will soon flush it and get a flying shot. But, if carrying a rifle, he should follow the main flock; sooner or later he will get a long shot at some of them, though it may be a long chase unless the snow is soft and deep. Should the birds take wing they will fly in a straight line, indicated by the direction of the long steps taken in rising, and the trail can be taken up again.

Coursing turkeys with greyhounds, as practiced in the more open western country is exciting sport. It is also vividly described by Sandys (1904). The hunter on horseback, accompanied by a good greyhound, finds his turkeys feeding out on an open plain and tries to flush one headed for the open. The turkey’s first flight is his longest, hotly pursued by dog, horse, and man. If the bird comes down and tries to run, he is soon overtaken. His flights and runs gradually grow shorter and shorter, until he becomes exhausted and is caught.

Well-trained turkey dogs are useful in chasing winged birds, which a man could never catch. Audubon (1840) says:

Good dogs scent the turkeys when In large flocks at a great distance; I may venture to say half a mile away, if the wind is right. Should the dog be well trained to the sport, he will set off at full speed on getting the scent and In silence until he sees the birds, when he Instantly barks, and, running among them, forces the whole flock to take to the trees in different directions. This is of great advantage to the hunter, for, should all the turkeys go one way, they would soon leave the perches and run again; but when they are separated by the dog, a person accustomed to the sport finds the bil’ds easily and shoots them at pleasure.

Fall: Turkeys are not migratory, in the strict sense of the word, but they are much given to extensive wanderings, mainly in the fall and winter, in search of food, which varies in abundance from one season to another. Audubon (1840) writes:

About the beginning of October, when scarcely any of the seeds and fruits have yet fallen from the trees, these birds assemble in flocks, and gradually move towards the rich bottom lands of the Ohio and Mississippi. The males, or, as they are more commonly called, the gobblers, associate in parties from 10 to 100, and search for food apart from the females; while the latter are seen either advancing singly, each with its brood of young, then about two-thirds grown, or in connexion with other families, forming parties often amounting to 70 or 80 individuals, all Intent on shunning the old cocks, which, even when the young birds have attained this size, will fight with and often destroy them by repeated blows on the head. Old and young, however, all move in the same course, and on foot, unless their progress be interrupted by a river, or the hunter’s dog force them to take wing. When they come upon a river, they betake themselves to the highest eminences, and there often remain a whole day, or sometimes two, as If for the purpose of consultation. During this time the males are heard gobbling, calling, and making much ado, and are seen strutting about, as if to raise their courage to a pitch befitting the emergency. Even the females and young assume something of the same pompous demeanour, spread out their tails, and run around each other, purring loudly, and performing extravagant leaps. At length, when the weather appears settled, and all around is quiet, the whole party mounts to the tops of the highest trees, whence, at a signal, consisting of a single cluck given by a leader, the flock tskes flight for the opposite shore. The old and fat birds easily get over, even should the river be a mile in breadth; but the young and less robust frequently fall into the water, not to be drowned, however, as might be imagined. They bring theIr wings close to their body, spread out their tail as a support, stretch forward their neck, and, striking out their legs with great vigour, proceed rapidly towards the shore; on approaching which, should they find it too steep for landing, they cease their exertions for a few moments, float down the stream until they come to an accessible part, and by a violent effort generally extricate themselves from the water. It is remarkable, that immediately after thus crossing a large stream, they ramble about for some time, as if bewildered. In this state, they fall an easy prey to the hunter.

Winter: During winter, when the snow is too deep or soft to travel on the ground, turkeys often remain in the trees for long periods, subsisting on buds and what fruits, nuts, and berries they can find above the snow. They are great travelers, however, in light or on hard snow. When hard pressed for food they sometimes venture into farmyards or grain fields, or along roadsides or railroad tracks where grain has been spilled. At such times they can be easily baited by scattering corn in such places.

FLORIDA TURKEY [Current A.O.U. = Wild Turkey]


The Florida wild turkey, which is resident in the southern half of Florida, was described by W. E. D. Scott (1890) and named for Osceola, a famous chief of the Seminole Indians. Scott says that it is similar to the northern wild turkey, but perceptibly darker in general tone. Coloring of tail and upper tatl-coverta aim,Wzr In both fot-ms. The white on the primary and outer secondary Quills restricted, and the dark color (brownish black) predominating, the white being present only as detached, narrow, broken bars not reaching the 8haft of the feather. The Inner secondaries of a generally dirty grayish brown without apparent bars, but with brownish vermiculations on the inner web.

Referring later to the Caloosahatchie region, lie (1892) writes:

This is still a very abundant bird in this part of FlorIda, though said to be diminishing in numbers every year and to be not nearly so plentiful as lt was ten or fifteen years ago. During my stay at Fort Myers from Noveniber till March, the open season, the birds were constantly offered for sale in the markets, the price being on the average ten cents a pound for dressed birds. A hen turkey could generally be bought for from seventy-five cents to one dollar and a gobbler for from one dollar to a dollar and a half. Only a few years back the regular price paid to the hunters was twenty-five cents each. This I was told by many reliable people who had lived there a dozen years or more.

It would seem that these birds, living as they do at this point in cypress swamps and “bay heads,” have a natural protection that will not allow of their absolute extermination, but, unless the exceedingly good laws passed by the last legislature of the State are carefully enforced, the Wild Turkey, still very abundant In this region, Is doomed to become In a few years as rare as it has already become in the northern part of Florida.

Dr. William L. Ralph, in a letter to Major Bendire (1892), states:

Fifteen years ago I found the Wild Turkey abundant in most parts of Florida, north of Lake Okeechobee, with perhaps the exception of the Indian River region, but they have gradually decreased in numbers since then, and though still common in places where the country is wild and unsettled, they are rapidly disappearing from those parts, in the vicinity of villages and navigable waters.

One can hardly believe that the Wild Turkeys of to-day are of the same species as those of fifteen or twenty years ago. Then they were rather stupid birds, which it did not require much skill to shoot, but now I do not know of a game bird or mammal more alert or more difficult to approach. Formerly, I have often, as they were sitting in trees on the banks of some stream, passed very near them, both in rowboats and in steamers, without causing them to fly, and I once, with a party of friends, ran a small steamer within 20 yards of a flock, which did not take wing until several shots had been fired at them.

Turkeys are still fairly common in the more remote regions of Florida, or where no hunting is allowed, especially around the edges of the larger cypress Swamps, such as the “big cypress” in Collier County. There, in 1930, I saw a small band of them on the outskirts of a protected citrus plantation; and one day I saw one cross the Tamiami Trail from one tract of pine woods to another; shooting is prohibited for a mile on each side of this road. We often saw their tracks around the borders of the pine woods and open savannas, near the cypress swamps; they feed in such places and roost at night in the large cypresses.

Courtship: Doctor Ralph says further:

These birds are polygamous, and the female takes all the cares and duties of incubation upon herself. The gobblers are very pugnacious, and will often fight fiercely for the favors of the hens. The love season begins in Florida about the middle of February and lasts for about three months, and during this period the gobblers frequently utter their call and are then easily decoyed within gunshot. Native hunters have Informed me that the hens roost by themselves at this season of the year.

Nesting: On this subject Ralph writes:

The nest is a slight depression in the ground, either at the foot of a tree or under a thick bush or saw palmetto. It is lined sparingly with dead leaves and grass, etc., but I could never find out whether this material was placed there by the birds or was there originally. I think these birds raise but one brood a season, though I have found fresh eggs as early as the middle of March and as late as the 1st of May. I have never found more than thirteen eggs in one nest, nor less than eight, unless they were fresh, the usual number being ten. The chicks of this species are very tender, and as they foilow their mothers as soon as hatched I have often wondered how the latter could raise so many as they do. The natives of Florida say that a hen Turkey will desert her nest If the eggs are handled. Whether this be true or not I do not know, for I never tried to find out but once, and then, though the bird was gone on my second visit to the nest, I always had a strong suspicion that she was shot, for its whereabouts was known to several persons besides myself.

I have a set of 10 eggs in my collection that was taken on March 28, 1908, near Everglade; the nest was a hollow in the ground under a. saw palmetto, near the Big Cypress. We found a nest, from which the young had hatched, on April 19, 1902, on the border of Jane Green Swamps, Brevard County. It was a mere hollow in the sand, lined with strips of palmetto leaves, under a small cabbage palmetto; it was well shaded but not particularly well hidden, and contained the broken shells of nine eggs.

Eggs: The eggs are similar to those of other wild turkeys. The measurements of 56 eggs average 61 by 46.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 66 by 46.7, 62.5 by 48.8, 56.3 by 46.4, and 65.2 by 41 millimeters.

Young: F. M. Phelps (1914) relates the following experience:

Late on the afternoon of April 18th, as we were working along an open glade bordering a cypress swamp, the dog began to nose excitedly in the grass. Suddenly up popped half a dozen little brown cannon-balls, quail I thought, but when they alighted in some cypress sapungs I saw at once they were young Turkeys. The old hen, hard pressed, soon rose from the grass and sailed away across the tops of the cypress trees. More youngsters kept popping up until there were eleven sitting about In the saplings some twelve or fifteen feet up. Soon one gave a peculiar little qu4t, and then to my utter astonishment flew straight away over the tops of the cypress trees after the old hen, and one by one the rest followed. My guide pronounced them to be about two weeks old and that seemed to me about correct.

The ability of very small young to fly is also attested by Donald J. Nicholson (1928), who writes:

On May 3, my brother Wray and I were going thru the pine and cypress country Just east of Turner’s River about one mile, and just about noon we came upon a turkey hen with five or six little ones not quite as large as a full-grown Bobwhite. We stood and watched her for a few seconds, and she ran slowly thru the scattered low paimettos with the young scampering along. We conceived the idea that It might be possible to catch one of the youngsters, and began to give chase, but Immediately they all rose and flew with strong flight, alighting in the lower limbs of a thirty-foot pine tree. We managed to find two of the young perched on dead branches not far apart, peering down upon us; they did not offer to fly or show any restlessness.

Behavior: A gain Nicholson says:

One day we were driving along the Tamiami Trail not far from where we encountered the young turkeys, and saw five large gobblers feeding right out in the open, 400 yards from the road. It was a sort of prairie or savanna, among the stands of cypress, and had been burned over; short grass had grown up. The birds paid not the slightest heed to us and we sat and watched them for ten or twenty minutes. However, one bird would stand with head and neck erect; as if on guard while the others fed; then another would take its place.

RIO GRANDE TURKEY [Current A.O.U. = Wild Turkey]


When George B. Sennett (1879) first called attention to the characters in which the Rio Grande turkey differs from the other races of wild turkeys, he evidently thought it was an intermediate and should not be named, for he said, at that time: “All Lower Rio Grande specimens, therefore, must be held as gallopavo (the Mexican form), or a var. internwdia established: an alternative not to be desired.” Later on, however, he (1892) described and named it ellioti, in honor of Dr. Daniel G. Elliot. But his earlier name, intermedia, must stand under the law of priority. He says that it ~ ï * can be distinguished from the other forms by its dark buff edgings on tall and upper and lower tail-coverts, in contrast with the white color on the same parts of me~ricana, and the deep, dark, reddish chestnut of the same parts in M. gallopavo, the eastern United States bird. The lower back is a deep blue-black and is wanting in those brilliant metallic tints so prevalent in the eastern bird and In the type of me~ricana. The primaries of the wing are black with white bars in contrast with M. gaflovavo the primaries of whicb are white witb black bars.

The range or habitat of this race, so far as known at the present time, is restricted to the lowlands of eastern Mexico and southern Texas. It will probably not be found south of Vera Cruz, nor is it likely to be met with to tbe north beyond the Brazos River of Texas, its range being thus restricted within about ten degrees of latitude. Wherever timber and food are in abundance we find this new form common to the coast and lowlands, and we could not expect to find it at an altitude exceeding 2,000 feet above sea-level; while the variety ea~i-cana is found only at the higher altitudes from 3,000 to 10,000 feet above the sea.

The Rio Grande turkey is now known to have been quite widely distributed in Texas from the central-northern part southward and westward into northern Mexico, though it has become much scarcer except in the wilder portions of the State. Writing of this turkey in Kerr County, Tex., Howard Lacey (1911) says:

Formerly very common, hut getting rather scarce now that the shotgun is becoming almost as common a piece of furniture as the rifle in the ranchman’s house. These birds are so foolishly tame when about half grown as they are wild and able to take care of themselves when fully mature; If they were not shot at until folly grown and allowed to roost in peace at night, there is no reason why we should not have them always with us. Armadillos and skunks sometimes roll the eggs out of the nests, and they have plenty of enemies besides the boy with the shotgun.

Austin P. Smith (1916), referring to the same general region, writes:

There can he little doubt that, at the present time, Wild Turkeys exist in greater numbers in Kerr and adjoining counties than in any other part of Texas. Their abundance may be accounted for, as the result of the encroachment of the Cedar and various species of scrubby oaks upon lands formerly under cultivation or in pasture; to the decrease in numbers of the Armadillo (Tatas novemcinctum tea~anum) which of late years have been much hunted for commercial purposes; and to the enactment of a law limiting the open season and the number that may be killed. During the winter spent in the region several heavy snowfalls occurred. These caused many turkeys to seek open spots In the valleys and along fence rows, often In the vicinity of human habitations, and I recall one flock of seven hunting for several hours within a hundred feet of the building I lived in.

George F. Simmons (1925) says its haunts in the Austin region are “wild, rough, brushy, country; dry, big-timbered arroyos running back from watered creeks; hill and valley country; shin oak clumps on hillsides; creek bottoms and lower slopes; wild, less-f requented, thinly settled country, particularly in the mountains and notches in the hills.”

Nesting: Simmons describes the nest as a “slight hollow, scraped out by the bird, lined with grasses and leaves, among low bushes, in dense woods along streams, in tangles of briar vines, and in thick weedy places. Very difficult to find, particularly when placed in growths of underbrush.”

Eggs: The eggs are similar to those of the other wild turkeys. The measurements of 49 eggs average 62.4 by 46.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64.8 by 43.2, 64 by 48.6, 57.2 by 43.6, and 61.7 by 43.2 millimeters.

Food: Simmons (1925) says of its feeding habits:

When pecans are ripe, the birds feed under the pecan trees along the valleys. At other seasons, they wander about wooded slopes in the daytime, feeding among the cedars and scrub oaks which cover the hillsides and ridges of the land that was once prairie; at night, they return to the valleys to roost. Feed on nuts, acorns, seeds, grain, berries, plant tops, insects, crickets, and grasshoppers.

Sennett (1879) says that in April “their principal food was the wild tomato, which attains about the size of a cranberry, and which they devoured whole, together with insects and larvae.”

Behavior: Simmons (1925) writes:

Observed singly or in pairs during the breeding season, at other times In flocks of from 12 to 15 or more; flocks are usually practically all of. one sex or the other. Very wary; when In danger, it usually sneaks away or runs through the ‘underbrush and into thickets, preferring to trust to Its stout legs rather than taking wing. Usually roost each night in the same locality, birds returning singly and by twos and threes at dusk, until all the birds have assembled in their favorite places in the tops of larger, taller trees, generally over water and frequently in partially submerged trees, possibly for protection against prowling coyotes and bob-cats; big pecan trees along wooded creek valleys, in washes, and in bottomlands are generally selected. Birds make their way back to the higher ridges before daylight has half arrived. Males flock together during the period in which females are kept busy with eggs or care of young.

Vernon Bailey, in Mrs. Bailey’s book (1902), gives the following account of the habits of the Rio Grande turkey:

Over most of the country where the wild turkeys were once plenty they have now become scarce or extinct, but In a few places may still be found In something like their original abundance, living much as their ancestors lived, breeding unmolested, strolling through the woods in flocks, and gathering at night In goodly numbers In their favorite roosting places. Perhaps the best of these undevastated regions are on the big stock ranches of southern Texas, where the birds are protected not by loosely formed and unenforced game laws, but by the care of owners of large ranches, who would as soon think of exterminating their herds of cattle as of shooting more than the normal increase of game under their control. Here, at least through the breeding season, the turkeys are not more wary than many of the other large birds, and as we surprised them In the half open mesquite woods along the Nueces River, would rarely fly, merely sneaking into the thickets, or at most running from us. The ranchmen say that the turkeys always select trees over water to roost in when possible, and no doubt they do it for protection in this region where foxes, coyotes, and wildcats abound. On the edge of the flooded bottoms of the Nueces River they roosted in the partially submerged huisache trees. A loud gobble just at dusk led us to their cover, and crouching low to get the sky for a background we could see the big forms coming In singly or in twos or threes, and hear the strong wing beats as they passed on to alight in the hulsaches out In the water. When the noise of their wings and the rattling of branches had subsided, with a few gobbles from different quarters they settled down for the night. The next morning, as the darkness began to thin and a light streak appeared in the east, a long loud gobble broke the stillness, followed by gobble after gobble from awakening birds in different parts of the bottoms, and before it was half daylight the heavy whish wh~~h of big wings passed overhead, as the turkeys with strong, rapid flight took their way back to the higher ridges.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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