Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

Wild Turkey by Jack BartholmaiWild Turkey distribution map


Population Information

The Federal BBS information can be obtained at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/bbs.html by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for time period (1966-2005).

*Note: There are important deficiencies with these data. These results may be compromised by small sample size, low relative abundance on survey route, imprecise trends, and/or missing data. Caution should be used when evaluating this trend.

Life History

Habitat Selection

The Wild Turkey requires four basic habitat components to survive: nesting cover, suitable brood habitat, quality roosting sites, and dependable food sources (Kubisiak et al. 2001). Findings from previous studies suggest that Wild Turkey habitat selection and use are most often affected by available food resources. It is an opportunistic forager and is adaptable to changing food conditions brought on by weather, land-use changes, and plant production schedules (i.e., agriculture). Consequently, food habits vary seasonally, annually, and regionally. Major foods are hard mast (acorns, pine, and hackberry seeds), grains (corn, wheat, milo), grass and sedge leaves and seeds, green forage (forbs), soft mast (dogwood), and animal matter (Dickson 1992). Poults tend to feed very heavily on insects initially but shift to green vegetation, seeds, berries, and other soft mast as the growing season progresses (Healy 1981 in Dickson 1992). In locations where snowfall exceeds 15 cm for more than two consecutive weeks, turkeys often seek alternative foraging habitat such as spring seeps and farms containing waste grain, unharvested crops, undigested corn and plant remains in manure piles, and corn in cribs or fodder sacks (Kubisiak et al. 2001).

A mosaic of habitat types is best for meeting turkeys’ year-round needs. In Wisconsin, a 50:50 mix of oak woodland and dairy agriculture appears to be ideal, but large blocks of older single species woodlands with some natural openings also are used (Kubisiak et al. 2001). Nest sites occur in moderate-to-dense understory vegetation composed of woody and herbaceous species, such as brushy, low-growing vegetation near edges of pole-size hardwood stands, grass-forb openings in woodlands, hay fields, and idle grassland areas (Dickson 1992, Kubisiak et al. 2001). Nests are often located along trails, roads, or other habitat edges containing well-developed vegetation one meter above the ground (Dickson 1992).

Brood-rearing occurs in habitats containing adequate cover from predators and abundant insects, grubs, and other food sources high in protein, such as prairies, pastures, hayfields, abandoned fields, wildlife openings, and natural savannas (Dickson 1992, Kubisiak et al. 2001). Cover structure is particularly important for early summer brood habitat. As poults mature, broods venture farther into openings to feed, but seldom stray far from overhead cover of trees or shrubs (Dickson 1992). Roosting occurs in woodlands with large pole-size or saw timber-size trees with horizontal limbs, although conifers may provide necessary insulation from harsh winter conditions (Kubisiak et al. 2001). Winter roosts tend to be in areas protected from prevailing winds, typically in the upper reaches of a northeasterly slope (Dickson 1992).

Habitat Availability

Currently, the Wild Turkey occurs throughout central and southern Wisconsin and has spread into most northwestern and northeastern counties. According to Kubisiak et al. (2001), southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area has an ideal mix of woodlands, agricultural crop fields, and idle land preferred by this species. Clearing ridge tops and valley bottoms for crop production provides agricultural foods while steep wooded hillsides offers nearby roosting cover. East-central Wisconsin contains bottomland hardwoods (primarily silver maple, elm, and ash) and an abundance of other forest types and thus is less suitable for turkeys. Northern Wisconsin also is generally unsuitable for turkeys due to the higher proportion of trees on the landscape and oaks being less prevalent.

Climate, food resources, and cover affect the distribution and relative abundance of this species in Wisconsin. Climate is the ultimate factor, as it not only determines whether it can survive in an area but also controls abundance and distribution of food sources. The combination of cold temperatures, persistent deep snow, and limited access to food has generally restricted the Wild Turkey to the southern two-thirds of the state (Kubisiak et al. 2001). However, warmer temperatures in recent winters have enabled this species to expand its range northward and colonize every county in Wisconsin (author’s note).

Federal farm programs have affected the major land-use decisions on private land in Wisconsin and much of the upper Midwest. The Farm Bill and its associated programs benefit a diversity of grassland birds and other wildlife but may negatively impact Wild Turkeys. Particularly in the northern edge of its range, converting cropland to grass may drop the percentage of cropland below what is needed to maintain high densities of Wild Turkeys (Dickson 1991).

Population Concerns

Wild Turkey populations dropped drastically during the nineteenth and early twentieth century due to hunting and habitat loss (Eaton 1992) and reached a low point in the 1930s (Healy and Powell 1999). In Wisconsin, the Wild Turkey was extirpated in the late 1800s and was not successfully reestablished until the 1976 reintroduction program (Kubisiak et al. 2001). Elsewhere, managers have focused on restoring turkey populations to ancestral ranges and beyond during the last three decades. Today, approximately seven million Wild Turkeys inhabit 49 American states and 7 Canadian provinces (Healy and Powell 1999, Norman et al. 2004, NWTF 2007). Despite these successes, turkeys regularly experience high annual fluctuations in population size due to weather conditions and/or predation. Thus, managers must use a conservative approach when establishing fall harvest rates (Healy and Powell 1999).

Recommended Management

According to Dickson (1992), managers in the mixed timber-agriculture portion of the Midwest should: 1) maintain 40-60% of the management area in oak-hickory or oak-pine stands that are 50 or more years old; 2) regulate timber harvests to achieve a balance in age and size class distribution within management units; 3) maintain wildlife openings in a grass-wheat mixture, particularly where forest cover is >95% of the management unit; 4) restore savannas to provide nesting and brood-rearing habitats; and 5) maintain savanna conditions by periodic controlled burns.

Key to the continued success of Wisconsin’s Wild Turkey population is the maintenance and enhancement of existing habitats on private lands. Federal farm programs affect the major land-use decisions on private land in the region (Dickson 1992), and may ultimately dictate where optimal Wild Turkey habitat exists. However, work spent on habitat improvements may be in vain without good controls over hunting. Harvest strategies should be based on population density estimates that reflect habitat capacity and management intensity (Kubisiak et al. 2001).

Research Needs

A broad-scale, consistent method for monitoring populations is urgently needed to set optimum harvest regulations. Additionally, investigating the role of Wild Turkey populations with their environment would better guide management efforts. Specifically, more information is needed on the role of Wild Turkey in forest systems and competitors in the short- or long-term. More data also are needed on legal and illegal harvest impacts and use and productivity in CRP fields (Dickson 1992).

There is a need for more specific ecological information including: 1) the relationship of Wild Turkey densities to predator densities; 2) how predators find nests and turkeys; 3) long-term effects predators have on turkey populations; and 4) the relationship of food production, quality, and consumption to Wild Turkey physiology and productivity (Dickson 1992).

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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