Turkey Days

by Nancy Rose
November 23, 2015

Turkey Days

wild turkeys forage under pines

Wild turkeys forage under pines at the Arnold Arboretum. Photo by Robert Mayer.

Benjamin Franklin famously thought the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) would have been a more admirable symbol for America than the bald eagle. The large populations of wild turkeys that inhabited North America were greatly reduced through hunting and habitat destruction in the centuries following European settlement, but conservation efforts in the twentieth century successfully reintroduced the species in its native range and beyond. Wild turkeys can now be seen in much of New England, including occasional sightings right here at the Arnold Arboretum.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous and their diet is quite diverse. It includes various parts of many plant species including grasses (young leaves in the spring, seeds in fall and winter), the buds and fruits of many native trees and shrubs, roots and tubers, and animals such as insects, spiders, snails, and salamanders. Acorns, nuts, and berries are a major food source for wild turkeys; principal species include oaks (Quercus spp.), hickories (Carya spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), black cherry (Prunus serotina), sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica), hawthorns (Crateagus spp.), and sumacs (Rhus spp.), all of which grow at the Arboretum.

fruit of black cherry

Wild turkeys eat many nuts and fruits including black cherries. Photo by Nancy Rose

Wild turkeys need a mixture of woodlands and open meadow areas to thrive. You can help wild turkeys by growing a mix of hardwood and coniferous trees, providing fruiting plants, creating meadows, and avoiding pesticide use. Wild turkeys will eat sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and other bird feeder foods, but it’s best not to feed wild turkeys near homes since they can become aggressive and can also damage gardens by digging up beds and raiding cultivated fruits and vegetables.

wild turkey on tree branch

Wild turkeys spend much of the day on the ground but they are quite capable of flying and roost high up in trees at night. Photo by Robert Mayer.

Read bird expert and Arboretum docent Robert Mayer’s article [pdf] about bird species at the Arboretum and see the checklist [pdf] of Arboretum birds.

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