Wild Facts About That Thanksgiving Bird

A Merriams turkey gobbler struts for a hen in the Sand Lake WMD. Photo Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS

Maybe you’re already dreaming about Thanksgiving: turkey, stuffing, all the pies. And maybe you thought you knew everything about turkeys. Think again.

Finding Wild Turkeys

Wild turkeys are not hard to find — if you look in the right place. National wildlife refuges are great places to find wild turkeys whether for bird watching or hunting. Refuge trails generally are open sunrise to sunset, many even on Thanksgiving Day when refuge visitor centers will be closed. Free trail maps are often available outside a visitor center or at a refuge entrance kiosk. Find your trail online.

Encourage lively talk around your holiday table with these facts.

Photo by Alex Galt/USFWS
  • They don’t just gobble, they make a lot of different sounds.
    Thought the only turkey sound is gobble, gobble? In fact, turkeys make all kinds of sounds: fly-down or fly-up cackle; kee kee run; excited yelp and more. A male turkey’s gobble can be heard up to a mile away. Hear them all, thanks to the National Wild Turkey Federation.
  • Turkey droppings tell a bird’s sex and age.
    Male droppings are j-shaped; female droppings are spiral-shaped. The larger the diameter, the older the bird.
  • An adult turkey has 5,000 to 6,000 feathers.
    — count them! — on its body.
  • Turkeys are fast.
    Wild turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and fly briefly up to 55 miles per hour. When they need to, turkeys can swim by tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails, and kicking. Domesticated turkeys cannot fly.
  • Tom turkeys aren’t the only ones that swagger
    It’s not just the males that fan their tail feathers to woo mates and ward off rivals. Some hens strut, too.
Photo by Tes Jolly, NWTF
  • Adult male turkeys are called gobblers or toms, females are called hens. Young chicks are poults, while juvenile males are jakes and juvenile females are jennies. A flock of turkeys can be called a crop, dole, gang, posse, or rafter. Or you can just call them a “flock.”
  • Young turkeys — poults — scarf down insects like candy.
    They develop more of a taste for plants after they’re four weeks old.
  • The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of only two birds native to North America that has been regularly domesticated, the other being the Muscovy duck.
  • The English name “Turkey” derives from historic shipping routes that passed through the country of Turkey on their way to delivering the birds to European markets.
  • There are five distinct subspecies of wild turkeys: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s.
  • Wild turkeys nearly went extinct in the 1930s, perhaps reaching a low of 30,000 in the United States by 1940. Through conservation efforts over the last century, with funds derived from the Pittman-Robertson Act, and thanks to sportsmen and women, there are approximately 6.5 million wild birds in the United States today, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. It is probably the most successful game bird restoration in history.
Wild Turkey by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Looking for Turkeys at National Wildlife Refuges?

Here are a few great places to start! When you are ready to head outdoors in search of turkeys, here are some suggestions! Or check out our online National Wildlife Refuge System hunting guide. Be sure to check federal and state regulations for licenses, seasons and special permitting. You can also brush up your photography skills or just enjoy a variety of scenic trails.

ALABAMA

Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge

Some of the best birding in the state can be found at this refuge. You can drive along an eight-mile Wildlife Drive that meanders through a variety of upland and wetland habitats, or you also can hike and bike. Along the auto route, a wildlife viewing platform and observation tower allow visitors increased opportunities to view wildlife. Look in the open fields for northern bobwhites and wild turkeys. The best time to spot turkeys is early in the morning when they find water to drink.

FLORIDA

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Wild turkeys are often seen across the refuge in early morning and late afternoon. You can sometimes glimpse them crossing the Lighthouse Road on the way to the visitor center or along wooded administrative roads. Bring your bicycles! Entrance: $5/fee per vehicle on the Lighthouse Road unit of the refuge. Hunters may apply for quota permits to hunt turkeys on the refuge during archery and gun seasons as well as during special youth turkey and spring gobbler hunts. Check the refuge website for specific dates and application instructions.

GEORGIA

Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge

Look for turkeys along 50 miles of gravel road, including the five-mile-long Wildlife Drive. You might also see them off Round Oak Juliette Road, a scenic (and paved) byway. Or try one of the refuge’s five hiking trails. No entrance fee. The refuge has set dates for the spring 2018 turkey hunting season: March 27–31; April 10–14; April 24–28.

ILLINOIS

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

The best chance to see wild turkeys is the 6-mile Wildlife Drive, where they are often feeding in the open fields alongside the road. An easy to moderate 1.7- mile Wild Turkey Trail leads through forests and offers another chance of seeing wild turkeys. For more of a challenge, take the connecting 2.2-mile Rocky Bluff Trail. Entrance fee: $2 per vehicle. The refuge is open for turkey hunting each fall (October) and spring (April-May).

MASSACHUSETTS

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

You are most likely to see wild turkeys along the 6.5-mile-long Wildlife Drive. Make sure to look in the fields that surround that area. Early mornings and evenings are the best times to catch a glimpse. Entrance fee: $5 per vehicle.

MINNESOTA

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Starting from the Bloomington visitor center, the half-mile Hillside Trail connects to the Long Meadow Lake Trail. Follow it around the floodplain wetland, keeping your eyes out for wild turkeys. No entrance fee. Select units of the refuge are open to spring and/or fall turkey hunting in accordance with federal and state regulations.

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

Renowned for its population of breeding sandhill cranes, the refuge also has a thriving population of wild turkeys. Look for them along 7.5-mile Wildlife Drive, two refuge hiking trails, and in prairie fields beside county roads that run through the refuge. No entrance fee. The refuge offers a spring turkey hunt for youth only.

NEW MEXICO

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The North Auto Tour Loop is a great place to spot some of the hundreds of native Rio Grande turkeys. An even better place is the Intermittent Auto Tour Road. Or try your luck on any of the refuge foot trails. Entrance fee: $5 per vehicle. Youth turkey hunts are available through an online application and drawing system. Apply in February 2018; the hunts will take place on select weekends in April and May 2018 (exact dates not yet set).

NEW YORK

Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge

Take the scenic Feeder Road, which you can drive for about two miles, in your quest to see wild turkeys. A parking lot makes it easy to leave your car and see the refuge on foot. Hikers can walk the road or sample three other hiking trails. No entrance fee. The refuge is open to turkey hunting in the spring. The refuge also offers a turkey hunt geared toward youthful hunters April 21–22, 2018, in accordance with New York State’s youth hunt days.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge

The nine-mile Wildlife Drive passes many woods and fields where you might spot turkeys, especially in mornings and late afternoons. Or lose the wheels and walk any of five hiking trails along the drive. No entrance fee. The refuge is open during designated seasons for wild turkey hunts.

TEXAS

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Look out for wild turkeys crossing Refuge Road as you drive in the main entrance. Pick from five refuge hiking trails: Raasch Trail is a good bet for seeing wild turkeys. There’s also the approximately three-mile-long Wildlife Drive. No entrance fee. Apply January 2–31, 2018, for the refuge’s turkey hunt, which will take place April 20–22, 2018. There is a one-gobbler-per-hunt bag limit.

Updates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

Updates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

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