Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, London Bird Team, December 2022
The story of the Wild Turkey in Ontario is a cautionary tale. The species was extirpated from Ontario a century ago because of over-hunting and habitat loss. In the late 20th century, efforts to reintroduce the bird were finally successful. All photos by Paul Nicholson.
The wild Turkey is one of the biggest birds in Ontario. This gawky bird has a wingspan of approximately 165 cm.
The adult male, which is known as a tom, is larger than the female. Tom turkeys also have a “beard”, a tuft of course hair-like feathers growing from the chest. Only a few adult females will have a beard and these are shorter and thinner than the male’s. Toms also have a curved spur at the back of each leg that can be weaponized.
Interestingly, the Turkey’s head is a little like a mood ring. It will be either red, white, or blue depending on the bird’s state. The male’s head will be bluer if he is excited and will turn redder if he expects to fight.
The face only a mother could love? Although the plumage of a Wild Turkey is beautiful, the head is featherless and it features warty caruncles, a large dewlap under the chin, and a fleshy snood on the forehead.
The Wild Turkey is not a migratory species. It has adapted so that is can find food through the winter, and its physiology protects it from the cold.
Important foods for Turkeys are acorns and other nuts, berries, fruits, seeds, snails, and insects. As a result, Turkeys can be found in varied habitats including woodlands, fields, and even by some backyard feeders. The birds will enthusiastically scratch the ground to find food.
In and around London, I often see or hear these birds in the northmost part of the Kilally Meadows E.S.A. or foraging for corn on open fields around the city.
The Wild Turkey is one of the few Ontario species that don’t migrate. We can see and hear them during all twelve months of the year.
Wild Turkeys remind us not to take any birds for granted. At times, this has been a population at risk. Through most of the 1800s the species did well, however by 1909, this native species was extirpated from Ontario because of over-hunting and habitat loss. Efforts to reintroduce the birds in the middle of the 20th century were unsuccessful, but in the 1980s a comeback was on. Wild turkeys now breed as far north as Algonquin Provincial Park.
Even non-birders know the vocalization of the Wild Turkey. Heck, even kids know the classic gobble gobble gobble. It’s usually the tom who vocalizes. In fact, another name for a tom is a gobbler.
Listen to the Wild Turkey’s classic vocalization below:
In March and April, toms will strut and display their plumage in an effort to attract females. (This is the look that is similar to the classic crêpe paper Thanksgiving centrepiece.) Interestingly, Turkeys’ courtship will frequently be done in groups. Toms are polygamous. Females will create a nest on the ground. About a dozen eggs are laid and they are incubated for a month. Chicks leave the nest after just a day. Young male Turkeys are called jakes and young females are called jennies. The hens rear the young.
When courting, tom Turkeys will display and vocalize to impress females.
This hen is shepherding her young. Note that she has no beard on her chest and no spurs on her legs.
Learn more about the Wild Turkey’s life history
Help make London friendly for the Wild Turkey:
Support the protection of natural habitats that Wild Turkeys need for food, shelter and breeding.
If you encounter a Wild Turkey, make sure to maintain a safe distance.
Avoid use of pesticides.
Reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Avoid excessive hunting of Wild Turkeys. If you do hunt turkeys, make sure you familiarize yourself with the rules and best practices.
Drive slowly and carefully on roads next to natural areas.
Submit sighting records using eBird or iNaturalist.