The wild turkey is one of the few birds native to North America that has become as big as an American icon as the bald eagle. It is also one of only two fowl species native to North America that was successfully domesticated and is now raised and eaten in countries all over the world. Sadly, much like the bald eagle, the wild turkey was almost lost to extinction due to habitat loss and over hunting.
Known scientifically as Meleagris gallapavo, there are actually five separate subspecies of wild turkey found in North America that inhabit different geographic locations. The most commonly associated subspecies that comes to mind when the name “wild turkey” is used is the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallapavo silvestris). This subspecies is the most numerous and is found all over the eastern half of the United States. The Eastern wild turkey is the hallmark symbol of Thanksgiving and is usually depicted with a male in breeding plumage with his tail feathers fanned out, bright red beard, blue head, and dark brown feathers with green iridescence as he struts for the females.
The other four subspecies include the Florida wild turkey (M. g. osceola), of Florida, Merriam’s wild turkey (M. g. merriami) of the Rocky Mountain regions, Rio Grand wild turkey (M. g. intermedia) of Texas and Northeastern Mexico, and Gould’s wild turkey (M. g. mexicana) of Northwestern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. A sixth subspecies, known only as Meleagris gallapavo gallapavo, that was found in Central and Southern Mexico is thought to be the subspecies of wild turkey that gave rise to the present day domestic turkey breeds when it was taken back to Europe by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Unfortunately, this subspecies is now extinct.
The required habitat of the wild turkey is an open wooded forest with access to some clearings and streams and rivers. Wild turkeys need some open spaces to find food and for males (known as gobblers) to display to females (known as hens) during the mating season. Wooded areas provide protection from predators and give shelter and roosting perches for wild turkey during the night. Mixed wooded and grassland habitats are also crucial habitats for hens to nest and raise her chicks (poults) and for finding food which consists of insects, seeds, berries, acorns, nuts, larvae, and tender vegetation.
Unlike other birds, such as quail, wild turkey do not like land that has been disturbed such as where ground has been removed and trees have been cut. After the colonists and early American pioneers began clearing the land for farming and building, the wild turkey population began to drop. Their populations were further decimated by hunting that went unregulated as wild turkey was a readily available and important food source for the early Americans. Because their habitats were never replanted or replenished, the wild turkey quickly began to disappear from its native range. It was not until the early 1900s that anyone took notice that this once plentiful native bird was on the verge of extinction. At that point in time, only 30,000 wild turkey remained in the wild.
By the 1930s and 1940s, efforts began to reintroduce wild turkey back into their native ranges. The first effort was to raise wild turkey in captivity and then release them back into the wild. This effort failed miserably as the wild turkeys would either suffer and die from trying to escape and not eating or they would become too docile from being raised by humans. When released, these partially domesticated wild turkeys would not have the skills necessary to live in the wild and were easy prey to predators. Reintroduction of trapped wild turkey that were then released into uninhabited areas proved to be highly successful and was used to repopulate the former wild turkey range as well as introduce wild turkey into into new ranges such as the west coast of North America and Hawaii.
Today, there are approximately 7 million wild turkey in North America and their numbers are holding strong thanks to the reintroduction program, regulated hunting laws, and, most importantly, habitat restoration and conservation. The wild turkey can once again roam its native land and serve as a symbol of American prosperity and determination.