Turkey Anatomy & Traits
Toms weigh mere ounces at birth, but the birds grow rapidly. By the time they’re 10 months old, jakes weigh 14 or 15 pounds. As adults, gobblers typically tip the scales between 17 and 22 pounds and stand 36 to 40 inches tall. Studies have found that Gould’s and Rio Grandes are the heaviest of the four races of toms. But turkey size varies greatly from region to region. A mature Eastern tom in south Mississippi may weigh 16 pounds, while a gobbler in Iowa might come in at a whopping 26 pounds. As a rule the Osceola tom is the smallest and most streamlined gobbler in America.
In all the subspecies hens are noticeably smaller than toms, tipping the scales at 8 to 11 pounds and standing about 30 inches tall.
Back in the 1940s scientists discovered that a mature wild turkey’s body is covered with nearly 6,000 feathers! Feathers come in all shapes and sizes and serve many functions—to keep birds warm and dry, to help them fly, to let them display, etc. A gobbler typically has 10 large, stiff primary wing feathers, which are black with prominent white bars. The wing primaries of the Osceola subspecies are distinctive, mostly black with only traces of white. A turkey has 18 long, stiff tail feathers. Gobblers raise and fan their tail feathers magnificently when strutting. On Eastern and Osceola birds, the tail feather tips and tail coverts are chestnut or cinnamon colored. The tail feathers of Merriam’s and Gould’s turkeys are distinctive, rimmed with buff or a striking white. The smaller body feathers of toms, especially the breast feathers, are tipped in black. They shine iridescently gold, bronze, red or green in sunlight. All subspecies of hens have gray-brown body feathers that give the girls a rather drab and dull overall appearance. From birth to adulthood, turkeys undergo four molts.
A band of stiff, stringy, black filaments grow on a gobbler’s chest. This beard protrudes through the body feathers and is visible when a tom is around 6 months old. In the spring of his first year, a jake wears a 3- to 6-inch beard. A beard grows 3 to 5 inches a year. A 2- or 3-year-old tom typically carries a rope that measures 9 to 11 inches. A beard may be thick or skinny, depending on the number of stringy filaments. A few gobblers have 2 or 3 separate beards that grow close together. Hunters prize these multiple ropes. The odd hen wears a thin beard.
All wild turkeys are born with small buttons on their lower legs. While hens keep their buttons for life, spurs grow throughout a tom’s life. A jake has round spurs less than ½-inch long. A 2-year-old tom typically has thick spurs that measure 7/8 of an inch to one inch. A gobbler that lives 3 years or longer grows curved, sharp hooks that may tape 1 7/8 inches (2-inch hooks are as good as it gets). Due to weird genetics, the odd tom has no spurs or 2 spurs on one leg. Eastern and Osceola gobblers typically have the longest, sharpest spurs. Western turkeys have shorter, thicker spurs.
A turkey’s eyes are set in the sides of its head for monocular vision. But a hen or gobbler makes up for a lack of 3D sight by cocking its head left or right to determine the distance to other turkeys or potential danger in the brush. A turkey can twist its long neck 360 degrees, which in effect gives it eyes in the back of its head. While a turkey has poor night vision, it sees much more crisply in daylight than a human with 20/20 sight. These laser-like eyes are the turkey’s primary defense mechanism. Turkeys, unlike deer, can see and assimilate some colors. For example, both hens and subordinate toms react to the changing blues, reds and whites of a dominant gobbler’s head and neck during the spring breeding season. A tom’s color-pulsing head stimulates hens for mating and suppresses the breeding urges of beta toms.
Although they do not have ear lobes or flaps to funnel in sound waves, hens and gobblers have acute hearing. Using the small holes in the sides of their heads, they can home into the calling of another turkey or a hunter, and pinpoint the source of the calls with remarkable precision. The sounds of slapping brush, heavy footsteps or the metallic click of a hunter pressing a shotgun’s safety can send a gobbler ducking for cover.
Smell & Taste
The good news for hunters is that turkeys have a poor sense of smell, so you don’t have to play the wind like you must when deer hunting. Biologists have found that turkeys have relatively few taste buds.
In dangerous times, a turkey prefers to run, and it does so with amazing explosiveness and agility. A hen or gobbler ducks its head, tucks low to the ground and darts off through the brush. Turkeys have been clocked at 10 to 12 mph. A turkey’s strong, muscular legs are not only good for running, they catapult the bird into the air. Heavy-winged gobblers are strong aviators for 200 to 400 yards or so. Flight speeds in excess of 50 mph have been recorded. After a short flight, a turkey sets its wings and may glide a half-mile or farther to elude danger.
Hens and gobblers are spooky the moment they peck from their shells. They become extremely skittish as they grow and elude foxes, bobcats, hawks and other predators. It is not uncommon for a gobbler to suddenly break strut, hop 5 feet right or left, stand in one spot for minutes and burn holes in the foliage with his sharp eyes. Maybe it was the shadow of a crow that spooked the turkey. Or maybe he heard a limb fall. They are skittish and always unpredictable.
Life Span of the Turkey
Studies have shown the mortality rate to be as high as 75 percent during the first weeks of a turkey’s life. Birds that survive this critical time typically live a year or two. Some birds make it three years or longer. Turkeys have been known to live 10 years or longer, but those old-timers were certainly exceptions.