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November 18, 2015
At the founding of this nation, Benjamin Franklin wrote his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache, endorsing the turkey as the national bird. He believed the turkey to be an honorable and noble fowl and the perfect representative of this new and free nation.

At the founding of this nation, Benjamin Franklin wrote his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache, endorsing the turkey as the national bird. He believed the turkey to be an honorable and noble fowl and the perfect representative of this new and free nation. Today this very same nation continues to honor this bird as the symbol of a plentiful feast and prosperity. However, every year on the morning of Thanksgiving, one special turkey is invited to the White House for an official presidential pardoning.

Gizzards are more than just the chewy stuff in your gravy -- they help turkeys chew their food. Image credit: Matt Meshriy/USGS.
​Gizzards are more than just the chewy stuff in your gravy -- they help turkeys chew their food. Image credit: Matt Meshriy/USGS.

The USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units in Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania have collected research on the forestry practices for the benefit of the native wild turkeys across the United States.

Turkey Research

The USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units support natural resource management decisions through research, education and technical assistance. The Units, established in 1935, enhance graduate education in fisheries and wildlife sciences and to facilitate research between natural resource agencies and universities on topics of mutual concern.

Due to restoration efforts of the wild turkey species over the past 75 years, turkeys are now found nearly everywhere they occurred when the Pilgrims arrived.  These restoration efforts have been supported by funds from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act.

“Research in Mississippi has centered in providing management agencies and the public with reliable information on landscape level aspects influencing wild turkeys and tools to manage their populations,” says Francisco J. Vilella, assistant leader of the USGS Mississippi Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

“Today USGS research on turkeys is not about restoring populations, but doing a better job of managing them for society,” says Angela Fuller, Unit Leader at the USGS New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

In Pennsylvania, turkeys are everywhere — from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the most remote state forests. Turkeys are an important species to sportsmen; wild turkeys are the star at Thanksgiving dinner.

“The goal of the New York and Pennsylvania Units is to provide a sustainable population of turkeys for hunter harvest, but to also ensure there are opportunities for all citizens to view and enjoy wild turkeys,” says Duane Diefenbach, Pennsylvania Unit Leader.

New York and Pennsylvania are affected by similar wild turkey management issues, which inspired the states to join forces to tackle the management problem together. It is uncommon for two state agencies to work together on the same management issue, but the Cooperative Research Unit connection and the collaboration efforts between the New York and Pennsylvania units make the teamwork possible.


A Turkey’s Feast

Though the turkey becomes the main course of one of the most filling meals of the year, the turkey has a pretty filling diet. Turkeys are omnivores with a diet that consists of both plants and small animals. Turkeys forage for food on the ground where they feast on acorns, nuts, berries, insects, lizards, salamanders and snakes. To digest this varied diet, turkeys have an organ called a gizzard that acts as a muscular chewer or food crusher. And they also consume small stones or pebbles to help the gizzard do its work.

Dressing the Turkey

Similar to other birds, the male has the fancier plumage, or feather pattern; their skin has beautiful hues of red and blue, which they display to attract mates. In addition to different colored breast feathers, male turkeys exhibit a long “beard” (actually special feathers) growing from the center of their chest.

Image: Wild Turkey
A wild turkey perches on a rock dike in the Missouri River to get a closer look at USGS boats fishing for sturgeon.

Breeding/Harvest Seasons

Fall and spring are the two harvest seasons for the wild turkey in many states. Though both seasons are carefully monitored by state wildlife agencies, the fall harvest can affect population trends because both males and females can be harvested – only males are legally hunted in the spring. The New York and Pennsylvania Units are working with their state agency partners, providing science to support wildlife decisions intended to maximize the benefits of a wild turkey population to the citizens of these states.

The numbers of females that survive to breed and rear young are critical to whether a turkey population expands or shrinks. Fortunately, there are more turkeys today (over 200,000 in Pennsylvania) than there were one hundred years ago.

Researchers in Mississippi examined how weather conditions in the northern and southern portions of the state influenced spring gobbling behavior of wild turkeys and how this related to the hunting season framework. Other studies used information collected by turkey hunters and biologists from state and federal agencies to develop tools for predicting statewide gobbling activity

Research in Pennsylvania and New York will explore how changes in the length of fall hunting season affect the harvest. As an example, Duane Diefenbach, noted, “Understanding the effect on hunter harvest by changing the season’s length by one week will help state wildlife agencies make better decisions when it comes to setting hunting regulations.”

Habitat and Range

A wild turkey’s range is roughly 400-2,000 acres (0.625-3.125 square miles) and the bird can cover up to 2 miles per hour while feeding. Typically, a wild turkey requires three types of habitat to survive: a nesting habitat, a brooding habitat and a winter habitat with an abundant food source.


Three wild turkeys beside a cypress pond in Florida.

Turkey hens begin to nest before the new growth begins in the spring, and require residual cover from the previous years to protect their young from predators. Nesting habitats generally consist of low brush that obstructs visibility between ground and about 3 feet high. In woodland areas, turkeys will nest at the base of trees, by fallen logs and boulders, and by any other physical feature that may provide additional concealment.

Brooding habitats need to be sufficient for the newly hatched turkeys to grow and develop. These areas consist of mainly grass and small plants, which are typically abundant with insect life for the young to eat. They must also be near brushy and wooded areas to be used for escape cover and roosting overnight. The ideal habitats for developing juvenile turkeys are orchards or groves of trees that are spaced widely enough for sunlight and are mowed only ones or twice each year.

A good winter habitat depends on an abundant food source, thermal covering for roosting and protected travel corridors. Places where groundwater comes to the surface are ideal because they provide drinking water, and melt the snow, giving turkeys access to the plant and animal life buried beneath it. Pine trees and other conifers provide warmth due to their needle-like nature and ability to catch the snow as it falls because they can contain the heat from leaving the snow-covered corridors. These conifer trees and shrubs also provide covered travel corridors to navigate warmly and safely through the land.

Image: Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo)
Three wild turkeys beside a cypress pond in Florida.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

A group of turkeys is referred to as either a rafter or a gang.  So this Thanksgiving, when celebrating with your own group, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but as Benjamin Franklin did so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition.

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