Species Spotlight - August 2014: Wild Turkey


In the early 1900s, wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) populations declined significantly throughout the United States, due to habitat destruction and unregulated subsistence hunting.  As late as the Great Depression, fewer than 30,000 wild turkeys remained in the entire United States. Early restoration efforts focused on releasing pen-raised birds, but efforts were met with extreme disappointment due to poor survival rates among the pen-raised birds. This approach hampered the wild turkey's comeback for nearly two decades.  It took the creation of the cannon net before wildlife agencies could successfully begin restoration of wild turkey populations by trapping and transferring large flocks of wild turkeys to areas of suitable habitat.  Wild turkeys currently occupy 99 percent of suitable habitat in North America. Today more than 7 million birds can be found throughout North America thanks to the efforts of state, federal and provincial wildlife agencies, the NWTF and its members and partners.

Species and Range

There are only two species of wild turkey in the world; the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), divided into five distinct subspecies, and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata).

The five subspecies include: Eastern (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), Osceola (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), Merriam (Meleagris gallopavo merriami), Goulds (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana), and Rio Grande (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia).

Two of the five subspecies occur in Florida, the Eastern and Osceola.

The Eastern wild turkey is the most widely distributed, abundant and hunted wild turkey subspecies in the United States. Since the eastern wild turkey ranges the farthest north, individuals can also grow to be among the largest of any of the subspecies. It inhabits roughly the eastern half of the country. It's found in hardwood and mixed forests from New England and southern Canada, South to northern Florida and West to Texas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. It has also been successfully transplanted in states outside of its original range including: California, Oregon and Washington.

The Osceola wild turkey, also referred to as the Florida wild turkey, is found only on the peninsula of Florida. It's similar to the Eastern wild turkey, but is smaller and darker in color with less white veining on the primary wing quills. The white bars in these feathers are narrow, irregular and broken, and do not extend all the way to the feather shaft. The black bars predominate the feather. Secondary wing feathers are also dark. When the wings are folded on the back, there are no whitish triangular patches as seen on the Eastern.

Habitat Management

Wild turkeys are considered a prey species.  Because of this, proper habitat management is crucial to the survival of the species.  Wild turkeys thrive in a mixture of grasses, shrubs, and trees.  Grasses and shrubs that are about 3 feet in height provide excellent nesting and brooding habitat.  This habitat type can be simply maintained utilizing “Thinning and Burning”.  The thinning of timber stands allows light to reach the forest floor, while the burning will reduce midstory cover.  This combination allows the native grasses and legumes to thrive.

Turkeys mainly feed on insects, berries, seeds, and acorns.  Their diet is variable and depends on time of year.  When a turkey is young (poult) 90% of its diet is made up of protein rich insects. 

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