My Life as a Turkey
Wild Turkey Fact Sheet

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Class: Aves

Order: Galliformes

Family: Phasianidae

Subfamily: Meleagridinae

Genus: Meleagris

Species: Meleagris gallopavo

Subspecies: There are five subspecies of North American wild turkey: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s, and Gould’s.

Size and weight: The wild turkey is the heaviest member of the Galliformes order. The male typically weighs between 11 to 24 pounds and is 39-49 inches long. The female, significantly smaller than the male, weighs 5 to 12 pounds and is only 30 to 37 inches long. Despite their size, wild turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 mph and fly up to 55 mph.

Physical Features and Plumage: The male has featherless, red head and throat and a body covered in red, bronze, and gold iridescent feathers. When trying to attract a mate, the male will display, fluffing out the feathers on his body, fanning out his tail feathers and dragging his wings as he struts. The male typically has a “beard,” a patch of course feathers growing from the center of its breast. The female’s plumage is duller, consisting mostly of browns. Each wild turkey has approximately 5000 to 6000 feathers. Other distinctive physical features:

Spurs: Bony spikes on the back of each of the turkey’s lower leg. The male will use his spurs to spar with other males.

Wattle: A flap of skin under the turkey’s chin.

Caruncles: Fleshy bumps that grow on the turkey’s head and throat.

Snood: A fleshy flap that hangs from the beak.

While both the male and female have spurs, wattles, caruncles, and snoods, they are far smaller and less distinctive on the female.

Turkey Features

Diet: The wild turkey is an omnivore. It feeds on acorns, nuts, seeds, berries as well as small amphibians and reptiles.

Geography: The wild turkey is native to North America, and is primarily found in eastern and central areas of the United States.

Habitat: Open woodland, savanna; also, grasslands and swamps.

Breeding and Social Structure: The male is polygamous, mating with several female hens during each mating season. To attract a female, the male displays—puffing out his feathers, spreading his tail, and dragging his wings. This behavior is commonly referred to as strutting. After breeding, the female typically lays approximately 12 eggs over a two-week period, though larger clutches of eggs have been observed. Nests are shallow dirt depressions surrounded by vegetation. The female will incubate her eggs for about 28 days.

Risks: The wild turkey is currently listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. At the beginning of the 20th century wild turkey populations were decreasing due to hunting and habitat loss. But beginning in the 1940s, efforts to save the species have helped populations rebound considerably. In the early 1900s populations were estimated at 30,000. Current numbers of wild turkeys are estimated at 7 million.

Additional Facts:

  • European explorers took wild turkeys to Europe from Mexico in the early 1500s. They were domesticated there and were later brought back to North America by English colonists. These domesticated turkeys have white-tipped tails while wild turkeys have dark-tipped tails.
  • When Europeans first encountered the wild turkey, it was incorrectly classified as a type of guinea fowl, also known as turkey fowl.
  • The turkey is one of only two domesticated birds originating in the New World. The other is the Muscovy duck.
  • The wild turkey is an agile flier, unlike its domesticated counterpart.
  • When excited, the male’s head and neck coloration changes, alternating between shades of reds, whites, and blues.
  • The wild turkey can make at least 30 different calls. In the spring, the adult male makes a call known as a gobble to attract females. Humans can hear gobbles from a mile away.
  • The male turkey is often referred to as a tom and a female is called a hen.
  • Benjamin Franklin argued that the wild turkey, and not the bald eagle, would be a far better choice for the national bird. He wrote in a letter to his daughter:

    “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

    …For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison 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, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

    - Benjamin Franklin, 1784

Photo © David Allen
Illustration © Joe Hutto. Used by permission of the publisher, Lyons Press.

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  • Susan McIntyre

    Hello,
    I was wondering if the My Life as a Turkey will be for sale on a DVD?
    Sincerely,
    Susan McIntyre

  • fultonk

    Hi Susan,
    The DVD is available at ShopPBS.

    We will be giving away 25 copies of the DVD (and the book that inspired the film). We are accepting entries through Thursday, November 17th. You can enter the giveaway here.

    Thanks!

  • Danielle Legg

    I’m so excited about this premiere. I’ve always loved Nature, and this thanksgiving I’ll be spending a day at Farm Sanctuary at the Celebration For The Turkeys. I love that this program will do what Farm Sanctuary does on each of their tours, show people that turkeys (and all the other farmed animals too) are such amazing creatures, intelligent, affectionate, and each has their own personality. I can’t wait to watch tonight! Thank you PBS :D

  • jim sullivan

    Folks,
    What a remarkable story. Thank you!!!
    Jim Sullivan

  • Les Anderson

    The wild turkey is primarily in the eastern and central areas of the US? There are wild turkeys as far north as central Canada. We have a plague of them in the southern British Columbia interior. BC is in Canada by the way.

  • Robin Rice

    This touched me so deeply, I have never looked online like this to try to find a way that I can see this movie again! so, now I am searching. Thank you!

  • springer

    Awesome movie! Please bring more like these to PBS!! Would love to see more nature shows with Joe Hutto. Thank you PBS, you made my evening great!

  • emmy

    What an incredibly lovely story! I was so saddened at the end…still can’t figure out why “Turkey Boy” attacked Joe…did I miss something? Does anyone have an idea?

  • Susan Jackson Brown

    I happened to be channel surfing last night when I found this awesome show. I loved the bonding between Joe and the turkeys. He is truly a compassionate and patient man working with these turkeys. It is truly a pleasure to watch a show such as this……

  • Jeff

    Turkey Boy was clearly the dominant bird of the flock and was trying to establish this dominance over Joe whom he now saw as a rival.

  • harvey kreider

    Great movie and was highly impressed with the narrator and his devotion to the turkeys. Was dismayed when Turkey Boy attacked him. Guess it proves that wild animals arestill wild. Like tigers/lions who are raised almost from birth later on attack and kill the caregiver.

  • Tom McGhee

    I never write into these type of thing BUT
    This show was amazing and the love and devotion this man gave to these birds was simply inspirational…
    I learned so much from this film and have passed on much of it already to my friends..
    My take away was as the man learned from these beautiful creatures…

    “Live for the Moment” I have many contacts who at the age of 30 they already are retired in their minds and are too busy planning too far in advance…I think the latest developments in the World markets should be a lesson to all that money and the pursuit of it is NOT what LIFE is about …I continue to enjoy each day and give thanks for all that nature teaches and gives us in return for nothing.
    All they really want is for us all to live in peace together.

    Thanks PBS

  • Brittany

    I loved this episode!!

  • John Varoumas

    I absolutely loved the program. One of PBS’s best shows presented on Nature. The story was fascinating. I have photographed Wild Turkey’s and find them so amazing. I wish people would take time and visit the nature parks that they live in to experience them. My compliments to PBS to have presented this program and to the photographer who filmed this. A great accomplishment. Looking forward to see more of the Nature series on PBS!!

  • Nicola

    Hello, Why did Turkey Boy attack his caretaker? This ending is very disturbing. What was going on in the turkey’s brain? Why this sudden aggression? They had such a special friendship and the man has always petted him and communicated with him. And why did the female kill her offspring?

  • Dede Heath

    I’d like to know more about the filming of this episode of Nature.
    And, by the way (for the edification of another commenter, above): the plural of the noun “turkey” is “turkeys.” The possessive singular is “turkey’s,” as in “The turkey’s eggs …”
    No matter; the more people who see programs such as this, the better will be our response to the world around us.

  • Mary G

    Absolutely outstanding video. I can’t think of a Nature flick I’ve enjoyed more. The story and format are outstanding, but a great deal of credit should also go to the photographer and editor. The scenes are mesmerizing, the full moon in the distance, the triangle shape of sunshine thru Joe’s bent knees. Outstanding production and every person involved should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished, as their skill brought a heart warming, though sad ending, story to a new height and level of edutainment. Thank you PBS, more please!

  • Jing Tan

    Now turkey is around my mind, so nice to enjoy the awesome movie on PBS. Thanks very much.

  • Brant

    Excellent Show ! Very informative and very tender !

  • Botan Anderson

    I thought that the Aztecs had already domesticated the turkey, and in fact were breeding different colors. And the European “explorers” took back domesticated turkeys to Europe, not wild ones.

  • Marilyn Weaver

    I have many wild turkeys in my yard frequently in Tarpon Springs, FL. After viewing this show, I have a whole new view of these animals. They are incredible. I watched the show with awe and joy. I felt transformed after viewing it. This gives new meaning to Life and Being Born. And loving turkeys!

  • Karen

    This was such a wonderful program – story, narration and fabulous photography. My daughter lives in the middle of 700 acres preserved for wildlife in Kentucky. Frequently when I am visiting, wild turkeys visit but are usually fairly far away. What a thrill to see them up close in your film. This was a heart-warming story, but I was saddened when Sweet Pea was killed, and I know Joe must have felt the loss deeply. I hope Turkey Boy is out there with many off spring!!
    Thanks to everyone who made this possible.

  • Cheryl A. Hayes

    I think Turkey Boy made the display because his caretaker had represented himself as a “mother” (female).

    Maybe he came back to court the female bird and got rejected and responded accordingly with scorn. Otherwise, some event happened between the two of them that seriously offended Turkey Boy. We see that often in animal/mammal and human relationships.

    Beautifully done video with a lot of interesting information!

  • Jean Ann Campana

    What day & time is the presentation? DTE

  • Aydelette

    I watched this show at a friend’s house — amazing amazing — the footage: ground level of birds at various ages, of grasshoppers being plucked. The lower eyelids making an expression we don’t know. Fantastic. Thank you.

  • Oriole nuipok

    Makes me wonder if the turkeys would notice a change in the stars

  • Belle

    This show literally brought some tears to my eyes at certain points. The first time was when the snake took the first baby :( and then the incident with Sweet Pea and then with Turkey Boy at the end. Seeing life through the Turkey’s eyes and through the eyes of the caretaker gave me a new appreciation for nature, especially these wild birds. I do not really find these birds particularly pretty but watching them live and understand the circle of life made them so beautiful.

  • ann kaplan

    Outstanding film, tender and sensitive observations. A wonder.

    Please play it again on the big screen.

  • SUDRET

    Hi all,
    Do you know where I can see for the “rd time this film ? I search it on the web and I do’nt know where I can find it. So emotional and spectacular film… Thank’s joe…
    Marc

  • sheri

    This show was fantastic…and emotionally so touching. We have these birds march across our front lawn and occasionally fly up to a branch of a small crab apple tree and sit. It strains the branch but is delightful to see. Now I understand more about these creatures. I have been guardian of these big old birds but now understand that they know more about me than I could have guessed. Joe’s poise and description and affection for his birds spoke volumes. I couldn’t help but think that if all of humanity could have the deep understanding that Joe has, the world would be a much better place. Thank you so much for this wonderful program.

  • Tricia Archie

    This is excellent! I presented it to my class of middle school students and they loved it too. Very informative.
    Thank you!

  • len

    Is Mr. Hutto going to do one on mule deer ?

  • Shanan

    This was an awesome show. Our children used much of what they learned for a school project.

    We raise heritage breed and have a permit to raise eastern wild turkeys. We got to see how the wild turkeys and our turkeys act very similar (since ours are free-range and tend to want to fend for themselves). They are very intelligent and in tune with the world around them. Turkey boy was much like our older Tom, in that just one day out of the blue he decided he no longer could tolerate my husband being anywhere near me. Until that day they had been buddies, but from that day forward he would try to attack my husband any time they were in the yard together. That is their way, and we have had to adjust. They are territorial and VERY protective. They make wonderful mothers, and our males also protect the poults from cats, dogs, and hawks. We love to hear our flock talking to each other, and we know what is going on outside by the sounds they are making, If we hear the warning call we know a hawk or coyote is trying to bother the flock. It was fun to see how the little poults acted without a true mom to teach them, and what was instinct vs learned behavior. Thanks for a wonderful program!

  • nora

    poor turkeyboy. joe left him after treating him as pet and best friend. a lot of questions on this thread about turkeyboy and no answers. it was very cruel at the end to attack his brother turkeyboy after becoming his best friend joe should have kept him as a pet forever. he didnt even seem guilty after doing that to turkeyboy. no wonder turkeyboy got annoyed. he should not have trusted a human in the first place. the ending was so disturbing especially after the film makers created such a fake idyll.

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