The bird that enters our mind as we get farther into the fall season is the one that often ends up on our holiday table, the delicious turkey. That bird is the domesticated, usually factory-raised version of its natural relative, the wild turkey.
We tend to see the wild turkeys in the spring, because that is when they mate and parade around followed by their offspring, but since the holidays are approaching and they are on our minds, this would be a good time to learn about them.
The wild turkey is the largest North American game bird, weighing up to 20 pounds, with a wingspan of up to five feet. In spite of their size, they are fast runners and strong short-distance flyers. They are very smart and have good vision, and any hunter will tell you they are not easy to catch.
Wild turkeys are most comfortable in open spaces such as fields and pastures adjacent to forests. They like to roost in trees, especially those located over bodies of water, decreasing the likelihood that they will be nabbed by a predator while they sleep.
The turkey we see on Thanksgiving cards with its feathers all fanned out is the male, although we are most likely to see that display in the spring when turkey courtship begins. Both males and females have colorful feathers of bronze, gold and green, but the males also have fleshy lobes of skin on their necks, called wattles, and a growth on their forehead called a snood. When a tom (a male turkey) is strutting around displaying his feathers to attract a female (a hen), he can increase the size and change the color of the wattles and snood from the neutral brown to a more visible red by contracting the blood vessels in his head and neck.
Another feature of the male wild turkey is the pair of bony projections they have on their lower legs. These spurs can come in handy in self-defense, of course, but are also useful in fighting off other males who may have their sights set on the same hen.
Wild turkeys do not mate for life. In fact, males are known to mate with several hens, and that is about the extent of their family life. The female will scratch out a shallow depression on the forest floor, deposit her 10–15 eggs (buff colored with brown and black spots) and cover them with vegetation. The eggs will hatch in about 28 days. The chicks (poults) are precocial, meaning they are fully-feathered and their eyes are open. (Most songbirds are altricial, that is born naked, with closed eyes and require constant care by their parents.)
Shortly after hatching, the poults can follow around after their mothers, learning to grub for food. Wild turkeys are omnivores—they love acorns and other types of seeds, but also fruits and insects and even small vertebrates! The poults stay with their mother until the next spring, when they set out to live on their own.
Despite their variable diet, the average life span of a wild turkey is three to five years.