Domestic turkeys are classified as flightless birds, with it almost impossible to imagine their plump bodies ever being able to gain enough lift off the ground to become airborne.
Is the same true for free-roaming turkeys, or can wild turkeys fly? Keep reading to learn more about wild turkeys, whether they can take to the skies, and if so, how far and fast they can fly.
Wild turkeys do have some limited ability to fly and can propel themselves into the air with short, powerful bursts of speed. They rely on flight to reach the branches of trees where they roost overnight out of the way of predators, but cannot fly long distances in the air.
Unlike their domesticated relatives, wild turkeys do regularly need to leave the ground, either to avoid threats or to access an overnight roosting spot in the woodland canopy above their forest floor foraging ranges.
This instinctive flight response kicks in when they sense danger, but they are, however, not built for long-distance flights, for reaching great heights or for flying at high speeds for sustained periods.
Join us as we take a closer look at the flight of wild turkeys, and investigate why wild turkeys can fly but domestic ones are unable to.
A wild turkey in flight
Wild turkeys are far better adapted to walking than flying, and spend the vast majority of their lives foraging on the ground. Flight is saved for necessity only, rather than to move from place to place. They are capable of short flights only, usually covering a maximum distance of around 400 meters (just under a quarter of a mile).
The average speed of a wild turkey in flight is an impressive 90 km/h (55 mph), but these cumbersome birds cannot sustain this pace for long periods of time or over long distances. Once airborne, a wild turkey will quickly reach its intended roosting spot, or land on the ground a safe distance from the threat that spooked it into flight.
On land, wild turkeys can cover far more ground, reaching running speeds of around 40 km/h (25 mph).
Rio Grande Turkey flying over a fence in the Texas Hill Country
Wild turkeys fly at relatively low altitudes, high enough to reach the strongest, primary branches of broad-leaved trees. Some of the highest roosting spots reached by wild turkeys are around 15 m (50 ft) off the ground, but lower spots are also used, at heights of between 6 and 9 m (20-30 ft).
They tend to habitually revisit a favored roosting spot and generally do not need to fly to higher branches if they have found a thick, horizontal branch lower down a tree trunk.
A flock of wild turkeys in the winter, some flying
Wild turkeys are only built for very short bursts of flight, so lengthy or leisurely flights are not on the cards. A turkey’s breast muscles are not developed for long periods in the air. This is because a turkey’s reserves of the chemical glycogen, needed to maintain a strength while airborne, is used up quickly during flight.
Baby wild turkeys, known as poults, first start to fly from around 4 to 5 weeks after hatching. Until this time, poults are reared and protected on the ground by the female bird. Once they have mastered the art of flying, young turkeys quickly become capable of short flights to join their mothers to roost in trees overnight.
A wild turkey flying over a river
Wild turkeys lack the necessary long-term flight capabilities to fly a sufficient distance for regular migration. As they cannot successfully undertake migration flights, they need to find other ways to adapt to their environment when temperatures drop, and can survive at temperatures as low as 4 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), using their body fat to keep warm.
Wild turkeys can survive for around two weeks without food, so when the harshest winter conditions hit, they may choose to seek out a safe roosting spot on a high-up branch and enter into a hibernation-type state for an extended period of time.
Wild turkeys are capable swimmers. Their chosen natural habitats are usually located near to water, and on occasion when they fall into a river or lake while foraging for food, they have no difficulty at all moving through the water, despite not having webbed feet. They swim by spreading their tails wide, tucking their wings close to their bodies, and kicking with their powerful feet.
A wild turkey preparing to fly in a field
Turkeys were first domesticated around 2,000 years ago, and over time have evolved, losing the need – and ability – to fly. They are bred for their meat, so normally have a larger breast and are a fair bit heavier and less agile than wild turkeys.
Domesticated turkeys’ wings are undeveloped and incapable of any form of flight, but they have no need to fly, as they are provided with safe overnight enclosures that are free from the threat of predators.
Wild turkeys roost in trees each night to avoid predators. They typically select larger trees, with broad, horizontal branches, such as oaks, sycamores and cottonwoods. Wild turkeys prefer to roost in trees that are on the edge of open country rather than dense forest, for ease of flight access, and will choose a roosting spot near both food and water sources.
Once in position on a wide, strong branch, the turkey assumes a squatting position, with its feet gripping the branch, allowing it to balance overnight without risk of falling.
A flock of wild turkeys roosting in a tree at night
Wild turkeys are better equipped for running than flight, but they can fly in short bursts of powerful flight when they need to. They are not built for graceful flight, but can fly to escape predators or find nightly roosting spots in trees. While wild turkeys cannot cover long distances or sustain high-speed flight, they do regularly use their ability to fly to get out of threatening situations.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox