Wild Turkey

America’s Runner-Up

By Susan Campbell

Shorter days and cooler nights now embolden our thoughts of the holiday season. Thanksgiving is not that far off — and that means turkey. Most of us look forward to feasting on the tender meat of this domesticated, large member of the fowl family. But its wild ancestors are a far cry from the bird we prepare on the fourth Thursday of November each year.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to taste a “real” turkey will tell you that there is no comparison. But hunters who pursue wild birds are far more often skunked than successful. Turkeys seem to have a sixth sense when being called or decoyed in. Fooling one of these birds, to call them within range, proves to be the biggest challenge hunters (or photographers, for that matter) face.

Not many people know that the wild turkey was very nearly our national bird. The turkey is, in fact, the only bird species native to the United States. Benjamin Franklin nominated the turkey for this honor, but the vote lost in Congress — by only one — to the bald eagle, back in the late 18th century.

Although the cultivated variety is completely white, rotund and not very bright, forest-dwelling turkeys are glossy black, wary in nature, and rather agile for a bird with a wingspan of over 5 feet. Typically found in mature forests with clearings, they take advantage of open fields as well. Turkeys forage on insects, small berries, seeds and buds. Interestingly, one of their favorite fall foods, acorns, are often abundant in our part of the state. 

Individuals are known to associate in large flocks of 50 or more birds. In the early spring, older males will attract, attend to and defend a flock of several females. At this time, they can be heard gobbling and strutting in their signature puffed-up posture. Only during the early part of the breeding season, in April and May, are the birds are solitary. Once the chicks hatch and reach about 4 weeks of age, hens will gather together with their young and form what I like to think of as “playgroups.” These small flocks may associate for a period of weeks, well into the fall.

In the early 1970s there were not much more than a million turkeys in total, on the landscape. Persecution and habitat alteration resulted in dramatic reduction in their population. Now, there are over 7 million throughout not only the United States, but parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico.   

Here in North Carolina, turkeys can be found in almost every county. In recent years, flock sizes have been increasing in places like Brunswick or Holly Shelter Game Land. It is not surprising that these big birds now show up to even take advantage of spilled seed around bird feeders and forage in grassy vegetation along our roadways, as well as looking for insects in agricultural fields across the area. So, keep your eyes peeled! You, too, may spot one — or a flock — of these majestic birds here in the Wilmington area.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos via email at

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