The Return of the Wild Turkey

From the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry...

History in New York

Reports indicate that wild turkeys were abundant in New York State during the 1600's. However, the combination of uncontrolled hunting and the intensive clearing of forests resulted in the demise of native populations. In 1844, the last recorded observation of native wild turkeys came from extreme southwestern New York State.

photo of wild turkeyFor over a century, the wild turkey continued to be absent from the New York landscape. However, in the late 1940's, wild turkeys had moved northward from Pennsylvania and were reported again in southwestern New York. Wild turkeys were re-established in New York by 1957, but occupied only the extreme southwest portion of the state. During the same year, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began relocating birds to areas of the state that were capable of sustaining wild turkey populations.

The return of the wild turkey to New York State is truly a success story in the field of wildlife conservation. Wild turkey populations in New York have increased dramatically from an estimated 2,000 in 1959 to over 65,000 in 1990.

Physical Characteristics

Male turkeys, often called gobblers or toms, have several features that distinguish them from female, or hen, turkeys. The most reliable characteristic used to determine the sex of a wild turkey is the plumage, or feathers. The plumage of males appears to change from rust to green to copper to bronze to gold depending on the brightness and angle of the sun. Also, the breast feathers on males are tipped with black. In comparison, the plumage of females appears dull and generally brown in color, and the breast feathers are tipped with light tan.

Male turkeys usually have spurs that vary in size up to two inches, depending on the age of the bird. In contrast, female turkeys rarely have spurs of measurable length. Gobblers commonly have beards that extend down from the center of the breast, and these beards can reach 16 inches in length. In comparison, only about 15% of hens have beards, but these beards are generally thinner and kinked.

Adult males generally weigh between 18-22 pounds, but weights over 30 pounds have been recorded. Weights of adult females generally range between 8-12 pounds.

photo of wild turkey nestReproduction and Nesting

Wild turkeys are polygamous: one male may breed with several females during spring. Hens are attracted to the gobbling and visual displays, or strutting, of the toms. After breeding, hens scratch shallow depressions on the ground and begin laying eggs. A full clutch of 12 eggs is laid in approximately two weeks.

Eggs are slightly larger than a domestic chicken egg, and are light tan with dark brown speckles or blotches. Incubation generally begins midway through the laying period, and about 28 days are required for the eggs to hatch. Nests are highly vulnerable to destruction by raccoons, skunks, and opossums, and only about 35% of nests are successful in producing young. If first nests are destroyed, hens will often renest.

Young turkeys, called poults, leave the nest within hours after hatching. During the first two weeks of life, poults losses often exceed 50%, and these losses may result from predation, hypothermia, or becoming lost. Males do not participate in any aspect of nesting or raising of the young.


Poults rely on a yolk reserve to sustain them during the first four days of life. During the first few days, poults learn to catch the insects that provide the protein required for rapid growth and development. At approximately six weeks of age, poults begin to include some plant material in their diet.

Once turkeys reach adulthood, they exhibit a widely varied diet that includes soft mast (e.g., grapes and blackberries), hard mast (e.g., beechnuts and acorns), grain (e.g., corn and oats), grasses, ferns, and insects. Studies have revealed that over 600 different species of plant and animals are consumed by wild turkeys.

In northern environments, deep snow may limit the mobility of wild turkeys. However, during these extreme conditions, wild turkeys will often roost near agricultural fields and fly to manure spreads or standing cornfields. If food is unavailable because of deep snow, wild turkeys can fast for about two weeks, and are capable of losing up to 50% of their body weight before dying.


Perhaps the most familiar call of the wild turkey is the gobble, which can be heard from as far as a mile by human ears. However, the gobble is only one of the 28 different calls of the wild turkey. Some of the less familiar calls of the wild turkey include the lost call, kee-kee, purr, yelp, whine, putt, puff, and cluck. These calls can be highly variable among individuals, but still allow the communication of complex messages. Vocalizations begin when the hen calls to poults in unhatched eggs, and these sounds are believed to help synchronize the hatching of eggs. Through various calls, hens are able to alert poults to the presence of predators.

Interesting Facts

photo of wild turkeyWild turkey populations have increased from an estimated 450,000 in 1959 to an estimated 3.5 million in 1990.

The wild turkey is found in all of the lower 48 states and Hawaii.

In spite of their size, wild turkeys can fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.

Wild turkeys can run at speeds of at least 12 miles per hour.

Suggested Reading

Dickson, James G. (editor). (1992). The wild turkey: biology and management. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 463pp.

Hewitt, O. H. (editor). (1967). The wild turkey and its management. The Wildlife Society, Washington, D.C. 589pp.


Prepared by Steven D. Roberts, James M. Coffey, and William F. Porter, Department of Environmental and Forest Biology SUNY-ESF.


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