Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Phasianidae
Genus and Species: Meleagris gallopavo
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Tall birds with strong legs, wild turkeys are native to North America and can be found in many areas of the United States. Wild turkeys are the heaviest members of the order Galliformes, which includes chickens, quails and pheasants, among others. Turkeys were domesticated in what is now Mexico more than 2,000 years ago, although many members of the species remain wild. 

At the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., visitors can meet a breed of domestic turkey called the standard bronze, named for the coppery sheen of its outer feathers.

Physical Description

Wild turkeys have long, strong legs, strong necks and elaborate, fan-shaped tails. Males are darker than females, with showier feathers. Their legs are pink, gray, silver or a mix of any of those and their heads can be red, white or blue depending on the season. Females are smaller and more subtly colored than males with gray heads and feathered necks. They do not have a tuft of feathers at their breast. 

Turkeys have a floppy, leathery appendage on their faces called a snood. While nearly all adult turkeys have snoods, the feature is much more pronounced on adult male turkeys, called toms, or juvenile males, called jakes. Turkeys also have wattles, which are fleshy flaps of skin that grow under their throats. 

Male wild turkeys stand up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall and weigh 15 to 25 pounds (6.8 to 11.3 kilograms). Females are about 3 feet (1 meter) tall, and weigh between 8 and 16 pounds (3.6 to 7.3 kilograms).
Native Habitat

Wild turkeys live in forests and grasslands, particularly hardwood and mixed pine forests, as well as scattered clearings including pastures, fields, parks, roadsides, orchards and even marshes.

Their range stretches through most of the U.S., east of the Rocky Mountains, with pockets living in northern Montana, central California and in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Mexico. 

Wild turkeys communicate verbally; biologists have identified at least 15 different vocalizations, including the male’s gobble, which he uses to court females. A male’s gobble can be heard up to one mile (1.6 kilometers) away! 
Food/Eating Habits

Wild turkeys are omnivores. They spend most of their time grazing in grasslands and forests where they eat acorns, nuts, berries, seeds and leaves as well as small animals like insects and salamanders. 

At the Zoo, turkeys eat a specially-formulated pellet diet, as well as fresh produce (like greens, peas and carrots) and occasionally mealworms. 

Social Structure
Turkeys form 'harem' flocks, with one dominant male and a group of females. During the winter, wild turkeys form bands with internal social hierarchies. Some bands are territorial and actively defend their territories against other bands of turkeys. Some turkey flocks can reach up to 200 individual birds!
Reproduction and Development

Wild turkeys breed early in the spring. Males attract mates by strutting and gobbling with their tails. They make nests, which are shallow scrapes in the ground surrounded by deep vegetation. The mother makes the nests and lays eight to 15 eggs, which she incubates for 25 to 31 days. Once hatched, the chicks can feed themselves within a day of hatching. Young males stay with their mother until the fall, while females stay with her until the next spring. Fathers are not involved in raising the young.

Some female wild turkeys lay eggs in another females’ nest, a tactic known as egg dumping. They can lay eggs in another turkey’s nest, or in the nests of ruffled grouse.

Sleep Habits
Wild turkeys are diurnal, and they do not have good night vision. They are active most of the day, and roost in trees to sleep at night. During snowstorms, they shelter on sturdy branches in dense pine trees. 
A wild turkey’s lifespan is about 3 to 5 years. In human care, turkeys can live up to 10 years.
Now plentiful and abundant, the wild turkey was once a species in decline due to overhunting and habitat loss. Releasing captive-bred wild turkeys didn’t work. Instead, conservationists captured wild turkeys from one area and transplanted them to others, bolstering the population that way. 
Help this Species
  • Be a responsible cat owner, and keep cats indoors or under restraint when outside. Never release animals that have been kept as pets into the wild.
  • Consider going meat-free one day each week to help reduce the demand on the livestock industry and decrease your carbon footprint!
  • Share the story of this animal with others. Simply raising awareness about this species can contribute to its overall protection.
  • Conservation starts with you! Join a citizen science project, such as FrogWatch or Neighborhood Nestwatch, where you can help collect valuable data for scientists. Encourage your friends and family to get involved too.
  • Plant native flowers in your garden to help feed resident and migrating pollinators. You'll make your lawn beautiful and help wildlife at the same time!
  • Growing, transporting and preparing food uses a lot of resources, so choose local, seasonal produce when possible. A significant amount of food waste also ends up in landfills, so only buy what you can eat.
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