The reputation of the wild turkey may have hit a high water mark when Benjamin Franklin proposed that it, not the Bald Eagle, be the National Bird of the United States of America. Despite a reputation for stupidity -- the story about turkeys turning their noses towards the sky when it is raining long enough for their nostrils to fill up with water is true, but this behavior is genetic, not an indication of intelligence -- turkeys are among the smartest game birds in North America, and were described by the author G. T. Klein as "wild and wary to the point of genius."
The wild turkey was threatened with extinction in the early half of the 1900's. In the 1930's it was estimated that only about 30,000 of these majestic birds remained in the wild. Today the population is numbered at at 6.4 million, making the wild turkey one of the greatest successes in the history of wildlife management.
The Life of the Wild Turkey
Like all birds, wild turkeys lay eggs. A female turkey lays her clutch of eggs one at a time, one egg per day, up to a rule-of-thumb maximum of 12 eggs. The eggs require roughly 28 days of incubation and upon hatching, the poults will leave the nest within 24 hours to begin feeding on berries, seeds, and small insects. Turkeys reach sexual maturity at roughly one year of age.
Male turkeys are known as gobblers or toms; yearling males are commonly called jakes. The males are generally larger than the females, and are distinguished by their heads, which have a great deal of loose, hanging, red-colored flesh, and by the long "beard" of modified, filament-like feathers that hang from their chests. People observing wild turkeys, especially hunters, should be aware that up to 20% of hens may also have beards. Hens tend to have a much duller, earthy coloration than jakes and gobblers, and while hens will make clucking and yelping noises (think standard chicken noises, only a bit deeper), hens will never make the gobbling noises associated with jakes and toms.
Turkeys have very powerful legs which are covered in scales; they are extremely fast runners. Both males and females are born with a small nub on the back of each leg. This nub will grow into a long, pointed spur on the males, sometimes reaching as much as 2 inches in length. Males will fight each other with their spurs, sometimes quite visciously, usually over the rights to a female/group of females. Females may also grow spurs, though as with beards this is uncommon. It is widely believed that turkeys are incapable of flight; while turkeys typically run rather than fly away from danger, and do not like to fly long distances in any case, they are quite capable of both:
Maximum Ground Speed: 25 mph*
Maximum Flight Speed: 55 mph*
I can tell you from person experience that wild turkeys can not only fly, they sound like Huey helicopters when they do.
There are two species of wild turkey, the North American wild turkey, of which there are five distinct subspecies, and the Ocellated turkey, native to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Depending on species and subspecies, turkeys can grow to be up to 4 feet tall and weight as much as 25 pounds.
Turkeys prefer to eat, mate, and spend most of their days in relatively open areas. They use heavily forested areas for protection from predators and for roosting at night. Hens will also nest on the ground in secluded, woody areas as far from people and other predators as possible. This need for a specialized habitat, with both open and wooded areas, almost resulted in the demise of the species. The destruction of turkey habitat threatened the wild turkey with extinction until 1937, when the Pittman-Robertson Act, an excise tax on sporting arms and ammuntion, provided funds for habitat preservation and restoration. The wild turkey can now be found throughout North America.
The National Wild Turkey Federation
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
* In both respects the wild turkey is, to the best of my knowledge, the fastest upland game bird in North America.