Happy Thanksgiving: A little about the ecology of wild turkeys

Everyone knows what a turkey is from the first few Thanksgivings they can remember. It is the giant cooked bird that sits at the head of the table.  It is delicious, usually stuffed with some kind of stuffing, and delicious with gravy and mashed potatoes.

Yummy turkey! Photo from: https://happywallpaper.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/thanksgiving-turkey-8.jpg
Yummy turkey with stuffing! Photo from: https://happywallpaper.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/thanksgiving-turkey-8.jpg

However, there is much more to these wary ground-dwelling birds than being a delicious main dish. The scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo, and there are actually 5 subspecies, or varieties, of turkeys found in different regions and habitats throughout North America. These subspecies are found in a variety of habitats throughout their range. One aspect that they all have in common is that they nest on the ground.

Wild Turkey subspecies range map. From National Wild Turkey Federation: https://www.archerytrade.org/uploads/articles/Range-Map.jpg
Wild Turkey subspecies range map. From National Wild Turkey Federation: https://www.archerytrade.org/uploads/articles/Range-Map.jpg

The most common, and the one that is most commonly cooked on Thanksgiving, is the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). They mostly live in forested areas and are found throughout much of the United States. There is also the Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), Merriam’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) which occurs in mountain regions, the Riogrande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) which occurs throughout the south-central United States and northeastern Mexico, and Gould’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) which occurs in northwestern Mexico and parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. There is also another turkey species on the map above, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) which occurs in the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico. There are also instances of hybrids that occur in the green regions on the map.

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Beginning in the years Europeans settlers migrated to what is now the United States, turkeys were an important food source and were widely hunted to the point that the number of individuals were extremely low at the end of the 19th century to the 1930’s. Not only were the populations at low numbers, but their range was significantly smaller because of habitat fragmentation caused by the clearing of forests for agriculture and to provide safety borders for pioneers.

As the landscape slowly began to revert back to successional trees and shrubs after World War I and the Great Depression, the habitat became more suitable for turkeys once again. Little was known about the biology of turkeys at this time, and the publication of the The Wild Turkey in Virginia, co-authored by Henry Mosby and Charles Handley in 1943, not only answered basic questions about the biology of turkeys and factors that influence populations but also had a large impact on wildlife research and management. Through conservation efforts over the years, turkey populations were restored to the point that there are nearly 1 million turkeys today and populations occupy more of the landscape than any other game bird in the United States.


Happy Thanksgiving




Click to access easternwildturkey.pdf

Click to access historywildturkeynorthamerica.pdf






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