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Wild Turkey
Meleagris gallopavo
– Family
Authors: Eaton, Stephen W.
Revisors: McRoberts, Jon T., and Mark C. Wallace

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Adult male Wild Turkey, displaying
Figure 1. Distribution of the Wild Turkey in North America.

The Wild Turkey, a symbolic and endemic North American species, is found from s. Canada throughout the 48 contiguous states and Hawaii, and along the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range to central Mexico. This is a socially complex bird, with a broad array of vocal signals. A non-migratory species, most travel and movement is conducted on foot, although the species is a strong short-distance flier. Wild Turkeys roost in trees at night and spend most daylight hours on the ground. A game bird noted for its elusiveness and as a table delicacy, it has been reestablished by modern game management in and beyond its pre-Columbian range.

The restoration of the Wild Turkey is considered one of the great successes of modern wildlife management. Much literature in the field of wildlife biology is available on the species. Additionally, human-imprinted poults, radiotelemetry, and genetic analysis have greatly increased our understanding of the behavior and ecology of Wild Turkeys. Present research frequently targets habitat relationships, population dynamics, and turkey management in a period of diverse stakeholder values.

The Wild Turkey is the only Western Hemisphere bird to receive worldwide importance through domestication. As a North American native, the domestic turkey of central Mexico became established over much of the world traveled by Europeans. Wild Turkeys even returned to America with English colonists of the Atlantic seaboard. Six subspecies of the Wild Turkey are commonly recognized, two in the east and four in the west and Mexico.

Trap and transfer of Wild Turkeys helped reestablish the bird throughout its native range; over 200,000 turkeys have been introduced in the lower 48 states and Hawaii, s. Canada, and n. Mexico with this method (National Wild Turkey Federation 2011). Wild Turkeys populations are regulated through recruitment and female survival, and the rapid growth of populations during restorative efforts has slowed, suggesting populations may have reached a peak. Future Wild Turkey research will target the influence of climatic changes, ecological and social impacts of harvest strategies, and refinement of population dynamic estimates with the use of advanced technologies and methods.

In addition to the Wild Turkey, the other member of the Meleagris genus is the Ocellated Turkey of the Yucatan Peninsula. More can be learned about this turkey at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds website: