Wild Turkey Behavior Observations

People usually think about turkeys as food, especially as the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dinner. Watching the almost dinosaurian wild counterparts of this domestic staple is fascinating, and they exhibit a wide variety of interesting behaviors.

Turkeys are omnivorous and spend much of their time walking and foraging. They eat seeds, nuts, fruits, grasses, insects, and occasionally small animals. Foraging in flocks provides protection against predators. Observing traveling and feeding together, their social structure starts to become apparent. Turkeys have a pecking order, or hierarchical system, with dominant and submissive birds. Bullying, pecking, and chasing are ways birds can show dominance. While most of the birds feed (with their heads down) there are lookouts who stand tall and alert looking for predators. When the flock moves from place to place, there are clear leaders and individuals who follow up the rear. At the end of the day, they systematically all fly into the treetops to roost (yes, turkeys can fly!).

The wild turkey (like most game birds) is sexually dimorphic. Males (called toms) are considerably larger than females (called hens) (about 10 and 20lbs respectively). The hens (like many female birds) have drab brown and grey plumage. Toms have brighter plumage, with strong browns and black and whites, and iridescence, as well as wattles on the face, a hairlike beard projection on the chest, and spurs on the hindlegs. The bare face with wattles and neck of the male swell and flush bright blue and red in courting display. Combined with strutting, fluffing of the feathers, and fanning of the tail, a tom looks quite impressive.

Displaying Tom- Photo Credit to Burton Robert, Public Domain

Turkey chicks, called poults, hatch in the early summer. They are precocial, which means they hatch more or less ready to move about, much unlike songbirds. Their eyes are open and they have downy spotted feathers, and can walk around soon after hatching.They follow the flock around readily and grow on a diet mostly composed of high-protein insects and larva.

John James Audubon Birds of America Plate, Wild Turkey. Public Domain.
Turkey Tom- Photo credit to Dimus, Public Domain. Note the beard on the chest, which is a mark of a mature male.

Turkeys are relatively common in the United States. If the opportunity presents itself to observe them, they are really interesting to watch!


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wild_turkey/lifehistory

National Wild Turkey Foundation https://www.nwtf.org/hunt/wild-turkey-basics/behavior



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