Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
A close-up of a young male wild turkey, also known as a "jake."
There are turkeys in New York City, and not just the ones that grace our dinner tables and float down Central Park West on Thanksgiving. Eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) can be found in the city, and are native to New York State. They are believed to have been in North America before humans inhabited the continent, though their history within New York is checkered.
Wild turkeys occupied southern New York State when it was first colonized by Europeans. However, turkeys lost much of their habitat when local forests were cleared by settlers for timber and to create farmland. Between habitat loss and unregulated hunting, most of the wild turkeys in New York were exterminated by the mid-1840s. It wasn’t until around 1948 that they began to return, crossing into western New York from northern Pennsylvania. With the help of a 1959 program instituted by the State Conservation Department that involved reintroducing turkeys to areas throughout New York, wild turkeys began to thrive again in the state. There are approximately 180,000 turkeys currently living in New York, including some that have made their home right here in New York City.
A tom and two jakes.
Wild turkeys generally live in woods, mountain forests, and wooded swamps, preferring areas with a mixture of woodland and open clearings. They can fly, but typically get around by walking or running. They usually roost at night in tall trees to avoid predators, but create their nesting sites on the ground in small depressions lined with grasses and leaves.
Turkeys are naturally wary of humans. However, being in an urban area like New York City can cause them to be more aggressive. When turkeys are fed by and interact with people regularly, they begin to lose their natural fear of humans. As a result, they may act aggressive towards people and event attempt to peck at them. Bold behavior like this can be very difficult to change, so it’s always best to view turkeys from a distance and never offer them food.
Eastern wild turkeys are large birds. Adult males, called “toms,” can stand up to 2.5 feet tall with an average weight of 18 to 20 pounds. They have dark black-brown bodies, and a long beard of hair-like feathers on their chests. During the breeding season, they have red, blue, and white skin on the heads. Males also make the distinctive “gobble” sound during this time to attract females.
The females, called “hens,” are smaller than toms and weigh 9 to 12 pounds. Hens have a rusty-brown body and a blue-gray head. A small percentage of hens have beards. They generally make a yelp or clucking noise.
Turkeys travel in flocks, and within each flock they develop a “pecking order.” Turkeys will peck at birds that they believe are below them in social status in order to display their dominance. This behavior is usually seen during the breeding season.
The turkey breeding season begins in early April and continues through early June. During this time, the toms perform courtship displays. They will strut, fluff their feathers, drag their wings, and gobble to attract the attention of hens. A single tom will mate with many hens.
After mating, the hen goes off by herself to nest. Over a period of two weeks, the hen lays 10 to 12 cream-colored eggs which hatch after 28 days of incubation, usually in late May or early June. The hen will then move her young, called “poults,” into grassy areas where they can feed on the abundant supply of insects. Young poults are preyed upon by domestic dogs, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and great-horned owls, among other predators. Most poults can fly about two to three weeks after they are born. While unable to fly, they are particularly vulnerable to predators. Around 60%-70% of poults die during their first four weeks after hatching. Once they are able to fly, they will roost in trees at night to avoid predators. Turkeys generally have a lifespan of three to four years in the wild.
Eastern wild turkeys change their diets based on the season. In spring and summer, they feed on a wide variety of plants and insects. In the fall, they eat acorns, corn, oats, and other seasonal plants and nuts. When winter comes they depend on any plants, seeds, nuts, and fruits left over from the fall. They are very adaptable, and are able to live up to two weeks without food.
A group of turkeys on Staten Island (Photo by Katrina Toal / NYC Parks)
• Benjamin Franklin would have preferred to have the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, chosen as the national symbol of the United States.
• You can determine a turkey’s sex from looking at its droppings. Male droppings are shaped like the letter J, while the females’ are more spiral-shaped.
• They may look big and slow, but wild turkeys can fly up to 60 miles per hour.
• Turkeys can see in color and have a 270 degree field of vision. Their eyesight is also incredibly sharp, as they can see three times more clearly than 20/20.
Coexisting with Wild Turkeys in NYC
• Do not feed turkeys. Turkeys are very capable of finding their own food, and have a wide variety of natural food options thanks to their adaptable diet. Feeding turkeys can cause them to lose their wariness of humans, and become aggressive.
• Prevent turkeys from nesting on your property. Do not encourage turkeys onto your property by feeding them. Chase turkeys off your property by making loud noises, gently squirting them with a hose, or other mild but consistent harassment.
• Observe and enjoy turkeys from a distance. Turkeys are generally wary of people, but they can get aggressive, especially during breeding season. They may also become aggressive when confronted with shiny objects or their own reflection. It is always safest to observe turkeys—and all wildlife—from a distance.
• Do not let wild turkeys intimidate you. Turkeys may attempt to demonstrate their dominance over people from time to time by acting bold and confrontational. You may be able to prevent this behavior by scaring or threatening a turkey with big gestures and loud noises.
• Keep your pets leashed. Unrestrained animals can cause harm to turkeys, their chicks, and their nests. Turkeys may also peck at and injure pets. To be safe, please keep your pets leashed around turkeys.