Let's Talk Turkey With These Wild Turkey Facts

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we’ve got turkey on the brain. The big birds are the centerpiece of our holiday feasts, but turkeys aren’t just for our holiday meals. They are also part of our local fauna, with wild turkeys populating woodlands all around us.

Wild turkeys. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Wild turkeys are quite different than the domesticated turkeys we feast on for Thanksgiving. The most obvious difference is in their color. Wild turkeys are dark in color, and domesticated turkeys are usually white.


Read on for five more interesting facts about wild turkeys. Here's one bonus fact to get you started: Turkey probably wasn't on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, because they weren't commonly eaten at that time. Duck and goose were probably served, and venison certainly was, brought by the Native Wampanoag people who joined Pilgrims for the meal.


They can fly


When we think about what makes birds unique, their ability to fly quickly comes to mind. But of course, we can also think of a few birds that can't fly. Penguins and ostriches, to name just a few. These flightless birds are usually large and cumbersome, and the wild turkey certainly fits the bill. However, wild turkeys can fly. And they can actually fly pretty well.


Wild turkeys can fly at speeds of up to 40 mph to 50 mph, but only for short distances. They usually limit their flight to distances of about 100 yards or less. That is enough to get the birds to safety if threatened by a predator. They also fly up into trees to roost for the night.


Flight isn't their only mode of transit. Wild turkeys can also swim when necessary, and they can run at speeds of up to 12 mph.


They don't all gobble


The gobbling call of a wild turkey is about as distinctive as any bird song, but only male turkeys gobble. For males, called toms, gobbling is the equivalent of a rooster crowing. It is used to attract a female mate and respond to other males. Gobbling is common from the treetops where turkeys roost, because the sound carries better from the higher elevation.


The gobble may be the most well-known wild turkey sound, but they actually use many different vocalizations. Both males and females cackle while flying down from their roosts, and they also give off a purring call while walking around. In addition, they may yelp to call their flock back together. When they're lost, young turkeys will give off a series of whistles to get the attention of nearby turkeys.


We're lucky to have them


Turkeys never seem to be in short supply, especially around Thanksgiving. However, the wild turkeys that roam our lands were once nearly extinct. Wild turkeys were abundant centuries ago but were on the brink of extinction by the early 1900s. At that time, only about 200,000 wild turkeys remained in the United States. In Illinois, wild turkeys were eliminated from the state by 1910 because of habitat loss and overhunting.


In Illinois and elsewhere, breeding and reintroduction programs along with conservation measures were used to help grow the wild turkey population. By 1973, their population was estimated at 1.5 million nationwide. Today, about 7 million birds live across the country. Because of successful reintroduction efforts, wild turkeys live in every county of Illinois today.


They have a lot of feathers


It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that, as a general rule, big birds have more feathers than small birds. When quantifying those feathers, the numbers can be impressive. Wild turkeys generally have between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers. Compare that to our smallest birds, hummingbirds, which typically have between 1,000 and 1,500 feathers.

Words to know


Cumbersome: Large and heavy and therefore difficult to carry.

Fauna: The animals of a region, habitat or geological period.

Iridescent: Displaying a lustrous interplay of color caused by the refraction of light waves.

Venison: Meat from deer.

Vocalization: The act or process of making sound.

Many, but not all, of a wild turkey's feathers are iridescent, which contributes to their shiny, colorful appearance. Male turkeys’ feathers include 18 tail feathers that they can arrange in a fan. The tail feather display is part of the wild turkeys' strut, which they use to impress females.


While 5,000 to 6,000 may seem like a lot of feathers for one bird, wild turkeys have nothing on tundra swans. They can have more than 25,000 feathers. And emperor penguins have more than 80,000 feathers.


They could have been our national bird ... maybe


The bald eagle is our national bird, an instantly recognizable symbol of patriotism. But rumor has it American statesman Benjamin Franklin would have much preferred the wild turkey for this title.


While this may be more of a tall tale, Franklin did have a more favorable opinion of the turkey compared to the eagle. He wrote a letter to his daughter, stating the wild turkey is “a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. ... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage,” according to The Franklin Institute. He was not as glowing in his praise of the bald eagle, instead writing, “Bald eagle ... is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.”


Despite his preference for the wild turkey, there's no evidence that he ever suggested the wild turkey be the national bird instead of the bald eagle. In fact, he was a part of the committee, along with Thomas Jefferson, that selected the bald eagle as the national symbol.

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