Electronic Field Guide » Featured Wildlife Species » Wild Turkey » Biology and Distribution

Prepared by Kevin Yoder and Margaret Brittingham (Ecosystem Science and Management)

Wild turkeys live in every state except Alaska and are the largest game bird species in North America.  There are five different subspecies of wild turkeys; the eastern subspecies is the most widely distributed and abundant.  Eastern wild turkeys range throughout the eastern United States and are the only subspecies found in Pennsylvania.  Wild turkeys in Pennsylvania are found in all suitable habitats throughout the state.  This includes the vast majority of undeveloped areas within the Marcellus region.  Turkeys are very adaptable and are found in a mix of habitats from heavily forested to agricultural to suburban.

Though turkeys have excellent sight, they do not have good night vision, so they protect themselves by roosting in trees at night.  Turkeys spend most daylight hours on the ground searching for seeds, berries, nuts, and insects.  While searching for food, turkeys use their strong legs to scratch away leaf litter and expose food on the forest floor.  Turkeys can fly for short distances but tend to use their legs to avoid danger by running at speeds above 12 miles per hour. 

Turkeys are very social birds and are normally found in flocks.  The size, age, and sex composition of the flocks depends on the habitat and time of year.  Turkeys are very vocal and commonly call to each other to locate other birds and to warn of danger.
 
Life Cycle
The behavior and habitat requirements of wild turkey change throughout the year.  In the spring, increasing daylight length stimulates breeding behavior.  In Pennsylvania most of this behavior occurs in April and May.  Breeding behavior by male turkeys includes gobbling and strutting to attract females.  After a male mates with a female, she leaves the flock to begin nesting.  Turkeys nest in shallow depressions in the ground that are located in low cover or brush.  A hen lays 10 to 12 eggs over a two-week span, then incubates the eggs for about 28 days until they hatch.  The young turkeys must be ready to leave the nest within 24 hours.  The group of poults, also known as a brood, leaves the nest and follows the hen, pecking at insects as they move throughout fields and forests.  Poults develop quickly and gain weight and mature rapidly.  Poults can fly by day 8 and begin night roosting in trees with the hen.  Most turkey mortality occurs within the first 3 weeks of a turkey’s life.  After this period, there is very low turkey mortality until autumn. 

As autumn approaches, turkeys begin to shift to a fall range.  This shift includes moving several kilometers from field to forested habitat.  As summer ends, green vegetation and insects become less abundant and the availability of forest mast (seeds and fruits that serve as wildlife food) increases.  The size of the fall mast crop usually determines how far flocks move and how condensed flocks are within the forest. During abundant mast years, flocks disperse throughout the forest. 

In the winter turkeys concentrate into relatively large flocks.  During deep snow, turkeys restrict their daily movements and range size decreases.  During this time, turkeys spend most of the day on the roost.  Turkeys roost near food sources such as agricultural fields and spring seeps to minimize necessary movements during winter.  As the amount of daylight begins to increase, winter flocks break up, males begin gobbling and strutting, and the onset of a new breeding period signals the start of a new cycle.
 
Habitat 
Wild turkeys use a variety of habitats, including forests, fields, and agricultural lands.  Basic habitat requirements include trees for roosting, herbaceous growth for brood habitat, and seeds and other mast from forests or agriculture. 

The most important component of high quality wild turkey habitat is a diversity of habitat types and plant species.  Habitat requirements vary seasonally, and a diversity of habitats addresses their varying seasonal life requirements.  In addition, it provides a variety of food sources that are less susceptible to complete failure.  More specific habitat requirements and recommendations to improve habitats are discussed throughout this factsheet.