The wild turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) is a large ground-feeding bird that is related to chickens, quail and pheasants. Turkeys prefer to live in open forests, the edges of forests or wooded swamps. They feed on seeds, grains, acorns and other nuts, berries and insects. Turkeys have been known to eat spiders, ticks, snails and slugs, and frogs and lizards, as well. Turkeys would rather walk than fly. They spend the day walking around and foraging and take to trees at night to roost. They are strong, quick flyers for short bursts, flying up to 55 mph. Running turkeys have been clocked at 18 mph.
Male turkeys, or toms, are larger than the females, or hens. The males have a long, fleshy sharp spur on the back of each leg and long, hair-like feathers, known as a beard, hanging off their breasts. The tom also has an adornment called the snood, which dangles from between his eyes, and can change color hue and length based on his excitement. The snood looks for all the world like a long, red booger. The beard and spurs are tiny or absent in the hens. Both sexes have bare heads with wattles and warts and iridescent feathers. Young turkeys are called poults. They hatch from well-hidden nests on the ground in late spring and are self-feeding, or precocial.
The tom’s behavior and physical characteristics made him a candidate for national bird. The tom struts, gobbles and dances to attract as many hens as possible. He can assemble a harem of eight to 12 (or more) hens. When displaying, he spreads his tail into a fan. He may stomp his feet and drop his wings and rattle them against the ground. When he is excited like this, his bare head will display varying hues of red, white and blue, thus his consideration as a patriotic symbol.
Wild turkeys are leaner, more agile and smarter than domesticated turkeys. Wild turkeys have brown tail tips, while the domesticated ones have white tips.
The wild turkey’s population had severely declined by the year 1900 due to hunting and habitat degradation, but it is now on the rebound.
The turkeys on display at the Virginia Living Museum are very active and entertaining to watch. They can often be seen foraging, displaying or taking dust baths.