The wild turkey is one of seven groups of large upland ground birds in the Phasianidae family that include pheasants, partridges, junglefowl, chickens, Old World quail, peafowl, grouse and guineafowl. Phasianids are mostly an Old World family, with distribution throughout most of Europe and Asia (excluding the far north), all of Africa (excluding the driest desserts) and much of eastern Australia and New Zealand. Several species, such as pheasants, have been widely introduced around the world.
Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo and Meleagris ocellata) are uniquely North American species. Meleagris gallopavo (of which there are five subspecies) are found in six Canadian provinces and all lower 48 United States as well as in Hawaii, where it was introduced. One of those subspecies is also found in northern Mexico, and the Meleagris ocellate is found in southern Mexico, northern Belize and northern Guatemala. The turkey is the heaviest of the order of Galliformes, with adult males (called toms) weighing 14 to 24 pounds (6.35 to 10.88 kg) and measuring 39 to 49 inches long (99.06 to 124.46 cm). Although male turkeys weighing more than 30 pounds (13.6 kg) are taken on occasion (the largest recorded is 37.1 pounds or 16.82 kg), they are not common. Females (called hens) are significantly smaller, weighing 6 to 12 pounds (2.72 to 5.44 kg) and measuring 30 to 37 inches (76.2 to 93.98 cm) in length. Turkeys have large sturdy feet with a tarsus measuring 3.89 to 7.5 inches (9.7 to 19.1 cm), three toes in front, and a shorter rear-facing toe in back. Males also have a tarsal spur on the lower legs.
A male turkey has dark grayish-brown or black feathers with sections in iridescent purple, green, gold, copper and red. The two features most noted and measured by hunters are the tarsal spurs, used in fights for dominance, and a bristly tuft protruding from the chest called a beard, which is usually found only on toms. Toms, also called gobblers, have a red, featherless head, throat and wattle, plus a fleshy flap on the bill called a snood. During breeding season, the snood, wattle and bare skin of the head and neck become engorged with blood. Turkeys also have a fan-shaped tail of long dark feathers tipped in buff, tan, or white (depending on the subspecies) and glossy bronze wings with white bars. The females are in duller shades of brown and gray.
A large, wary bird, the turkey has excellent eyesight and hearing. Despite its size, it can quickly take to wing to escape predators and can also disappear as quickly on foot. They are omnivorous, eating nuts and berries, such as acorns, and juniper berries, plus insects and occasionally small amphibians or reptiles, such as lizards.
Varieties and Distribution
There are six varieties of wild turkey; five are subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo:
Eastern turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most widely distributed and hunted of the five. It is found in the most southern reaches of southeastern and midwestern Canada, specifically Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. In the United States it ranges from Maine all the way down to the eastern seaboard and westward across the Florida Panhandle to Texas and up through Minnesota.
Osceola turkey (M. g. Osceola) is found only on the Florida peninsula south of a boundary line extending from the city of Jacksonville on the northeast coast of the state to the Dixie County line on the west coast.
Rio Grande turkey (M. g. intermedia) is named for the Rio Grande River along the border of Mexico and Texas and is native to that region up through Central Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. It has been introduced to California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Idaho.
Merriam’s turkey (M. g. merriami) is found throughout the Rocky Mountains and the northern Great Plains in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. It also lives in the high mesas of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Merriam’s turkeys were also introduced into British Columbia, Alberta, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Gould’s turkey (M. g. Mexicana) lives in Southeastern Arizona (where it was reintroduced) and New Mexico, but it is most numerous in Northern Mexico in the Sierra Madre Occidentals. Gould’s turkeys are found in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, Nayarit, Jalisco and Coahuila.
The sixth wild turkey is the only one not also found in the United States. The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellate) is found only on the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and northern Belize. But traveling hunters may only hunt this species in Mexico.
Meleagris gallopavo prefers forests with a variety of hardwoods and/or a conifer mix. The woods should be broken up by fields, marshes, pastures or orchards. In the northeast, turkeys can be found in areas with oak, hickory, beech, cherry and white ash. In the southeast, they inhabit forests of pine, magnolia, beech, oak, hickory, elm, bald cypress, tupelo and sweet gum. Further west in Texas and the southwest, they make their homes in grasslands peppered with mesquite and in grassy oak savannahs. In the Rocky Mountains, turkeys live in the pinyon juniper and ponderosa pine forests. And in southern Arizona and Mexico they use the pinyon and pine oak forests and chaparral habitat.
On the Yucatan Peninsula, Meleagris ocellate prefer arid brushlands, savannas, marshlands, old-growth mature rain forest, and second-growth forests checkered with abandoned farmlands. Throughout their range, whether that of Meleagris gallopavo or Meleagris ocellate, any agricultural areas found near forests or bushy habitats will have wild turkeys.
See the listings below and follow the links for more information on each subspecies or variety and for information on hunting techniques and what you should expect when pursuing this quarry.
+About Hunting Turkey
+About Hunting Merriam’s Turkey
Rio Grande Turkey
+About Hunting Osceola Turkey
+About Hunting Gould’s Turkey
+About Hunting Ocellated Turkey