The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is an upland ground bird native to North America and is the heaviest member of the diverse Galliformes. It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which was originally derived from a southern Mexican subspecies of wild turkey (not the related ocellated turkey). Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name from the domesticated variety being imported to Britain in ships coming from the Levant via Spain. The British at the time therefore associated the wild turkey with the country Turkey and the name prevails.
Adult wild turkeys have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs. The body feathers are generally blackish and dark, sometimes grey brown overall with a coppery sheen that becomes more complex in adult males. Adult males, called toms or gobblers, have a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles on the throat and neck. The head has fleshy growths called caruncles. Juvenile males are called jakes; the difference between an adult male and a juvenile is that the jake has a very short beard and his tail fan has longer feathers in the middle. The adult male’s tail fan feathers will be all the same length. When males are excited, a fleshy flap on the bill expands, and this, the wattles and the bare skin of the head and neck all become engorged with blood, almost concealing the eyes and bill. The long fleshy object over a male’s beak is called a snood. Each foot has three toes in front, with a shorter, rear-facing toe in back; males have a spur behind each of their lower legs.
Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. As with many other species of the Galliformes, turkeys exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. The preen gland (uropygial gland) is also larger in male turkeys compared to female ones. In contrast to the majority of other birds, they are colonized by bacteria of unknown function (Corynebacterium uropygiale). Females, called hens, have feathers that are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes; in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. The primary wing feathers have white bars. Turkeys have 5000 to 6000 feathers. Tail feathers are of the same length in adults, different lengths in juveniles. Males typically have a “beard”, a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 230 mm (9.1 in) in length. In some populations, 10 to 20% of females have a beard, usually shorter and thinner than that of the male.
Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. They seemingly can adapt to virtually any dense native plant community as long as coverage and openings are widely available. Open, mature forest with a variety of interspersion of tree species appear to be preferred.
Turkeys have many vocalizations: “gobbles”, “clucks”, “putts”, “purrs”, “yelps”, “cutts”, “whines”, “cackles”, and “kee-kees”. In early spring, males older than 1-year-old (sometimes called gobblers or toms) and, occasionally to a lesser extent, males younger than 1-year-old (sometimes called jakes) gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Males also emit a low-pitched “drumming” sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken. In addition they produce a sound known as the “spit” which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack.