Many people associate turkeys with Thanksgiving dinner, but these stately American game birds are still found in the wild across much of North America.
Wild turkey numbers decreased dramatically as a result of habitat loss and hunting, but today they are seen as a true conservation success story thanks to the efforts of dedicated scientists, officials, and everyday citizens.
Six subspecies of wild turkeys occur from southern Canada, throughout the United States, and through much of Mexico. They are usually found in forested and woodland habitats, although they can be found in a variety of environments across their range, including riverine and swamp areas and even the outskirts of suburban areas.
Wild turkeys have been a part of human lives for thousands of years, and today they are farmed commercially and even kept as pets all over the world!
Read along to learn more about the distribution and habitat of wild turkeys.
Wild Turkeys are generally found in woodland habitats
Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are native and endemic to North America. They occur in the countries of Canada, the United States of America, and Mexico. They have also been introduced to various parts of the world including New Zealand and Hawaii.
Wild Turkeys are widespread in the United States, absent only from parts of the north, west, and Pacific Northwest. They also occur marginally in the south of Canada and throughout much of northern and central Mexico.
Male wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) eating in a Wisconsin field in autumn
There are two species of turkeys in the Meleagris genus. These are the wild turkey (M. gallopavo) of North America, and the ocellated turkey (M. ocellata) of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. There are six different sub-species of wild turkey, and five of them occur in the United States.
Keep reading to learn where these five subspecies naturally occur.
The eastern wild turkey is widespread in the United States, occurring from New England and Southeast Canada south to northern Florida and eastern Texas.
The Florida wild turkey has a restricted range, occurring only in peninsular Florida.
The Rio Grande wild turkey occurs from Oklahoma south through Texas and into Mexico.
Merriam’s wild turkey inhabits the Rocky Mountain region from Colorado to Arizona and western Texas.
Gould’s wild turkey is a large subspecies that only just enters the United States in Arizona and New Mexico.
A male wild turkey in full display
Wild turkeys are principally birds of forest and woodland habitats, although they occur in more open habitats in the semi-arid southwest.
The density and tree species composition of their habitat varies geographically but they will make use of timber plantations as well as pasture and agricultural clearings. Wooded habitats along watercourses and around swamps are also important in the southern parts of their range.
Wild turkeys were once rare, but have become increasingly common. The effects of human development and the resulting habitat loss, as well as direct losses from hunting, reduced the wild turkey population drastically in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The wild turkey population has recovered because of focused conservation efforts and reintroduction programs. Today the species is considered to be of ‘Least Concern’ according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Wild Turkeys in their natural habitat of woodland
Wild turkeys are so widespread in the United States that they can now be found in every state of the lower 48. They have even been introduced to Hawaii but are absent from Alaska. Some areas of the conterminous United States are just not suitable for the species, however.
Wild turkeys are absent from large parts of the following central and western states:
Wild turkeys are also absent from the far south along the gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, as well as the far north of Michigan and Minnesota.
Wild turkeys are not widespread in Canada, being found only in the extreme south of the country.
They are most common in Ontario where they can be found across a large area in the southeast of the province. Wild turkeys can also be found in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Québec.
A flock of Wild Turkeys
Wild Turkeys are most common in the central and eastern parts of the United States. They reach their highest numbers in the states of Alabama, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Wisconsin.
Wild turkeys can be found in suitable habitats throughout most of the conterminous United States. They are even becoming more common near suburban areas, so you might not have to travel very far at all to see these magnificent American ground birds.
The following wildlife refuges are known to support populations of wild turkeys.
A pair of wild turkeys, Utah
Wild turkeys do not migrate but they do undertake local seasonal movements in some areas. They will often form large groups of 200 or more in the winter. Females are less territorial than males and will group together and move greater distances.
Turkeys are able to survive cold winters by finding mast (the nuts and fruit of forest trees), although this can be difficult when food resources are covered by snow.
South-facing slopes generally have thinner snow covering because they are exposed to more direct sunlight and can provide easier foraging grounds.
Wild turkeys use trees near water and with higher canopy cover and more shelter from the cold wind in the winter months.
A male wild turkey displaying to females in the winter
Wild turkeys do not migrate but they do use slightly different habitats at different times of the year. The large flocks (also known as rafters) that form in the winter months disband into much smaller groups in the summer.
The birds make use of more open habitats like clearings and pasture at this time of the year to take advantage of the insects and grasses that they feed on. Wild turkeys are also less selective about the types of trees they sleep in during the summer.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, wild turkey populations may have fallen to as low as 200,000 around the beginning of the 1900s. Their numbers in the US increased to approximately 1.25 million individuals by 1970 and their recovery accelerated after that, resulting in a dramatic increase to an estimated 6.5 - 6.7 million in 2009.
A group of wild turkeys
Wild turkeys might spend their days foraging on the ground, but they spend their nights high up in the safety of trees. They prefer to roost in trees that are near water, especially in the winter.
Wild turkeys utilize a variety of different tree species, but generally select trees with large lateral branches where they can sleep in comfort. These birds usually roost in flocks, and they fly up to their roost site around sunset, only descending the following morning around dawn.
Wild turkeys nest on the ground. They often nest at the base of trees, under thick brush, bushes, or grass cover. They do not build a nest, and simply make a shallow depression in the ground. The poults (baby turkeys) are well developed when they hatch and are ready to leave the nest in just one to three days.
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