Eastern Wild Turkeys: Another North Carolina Conservation Success Story

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“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the bald eagle], and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” -Benjamin Franklin

It has long been thought that Benjamin Franklin advocated for and promoted the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) as the national bird of the United States rather than the bald eagle. While most experts say that this is probably a myth, it is sure that Franklin did have great admiration for the bird, as indicated by the quote above, sourced from a letter written to his daughter.

While the wild turkey may not have made it to the grand status of the national bird, it without a doubt provides a spectacle of grandeur to anyone who lays eyes on it. And it is just one example of conservation success in North Carolina and beyond.

Male wild turkey

Wild turkeys are large birds with dark plumage and bare, colorful heads. Males – also called “toms”, or “jakes” before they are fully mature – boast a large, peacock-like fan of posterior patterned feathers used to establish dominance and impress potential mates. Males can be distinguished by a long, bristly black “beard” that hangs down from their chest, and a bright fleshy “wattle” that hangs down over their beak. Though they are prey animals to many predators, the wild turkey does not often go down without a fight. Males have prominent spurs on their legs for defense against predators, and for use in fights with other toms to exert dominance.

Females – also called “hens”, or “jennies” before they are fully mature – typically have duller plumage and lack the spurs, beard, wattle, and fan of their male counterparts. Often confusing to many hunters and wildlife watchers, though, is the finding that around 5% of female turkeys do boast a beard, as well, though usually shorter than that of the males. The dull, less revealing color of hens’ plumage helps them to camouflage on the forest floor while sitting atop their ground nests. While on the nest, a hen will lay a clutch of 8-14 eggs at a rate of one egg per day. Upon hatching, the young turkeys – or “poults” – will remain with their mother over the course of the next year.

While both sexes have forms of mating calls and group communication, they are generally easy to distinguish from one another. Females make a series of short clucking, purring, and chirping sounds while males produce spitting and drumming noises, along with the notorious wild turkey gobble.

Wild turkeys are very versatile and prefer a mix of terrain types, both forested and open areas. Turkeys prefer to roost high up in the branches of trees at night and forage in more open areas where they have access to a diverse omnivorous diet of nuts, berries, grasses, seeds, and insects.

Wild turkeys are considered a common game animal in North Carolina. However, despite their habitat versatility and their wide population range, the species has not always been as healthy as they are now.

At the time of European settlement, turkeys were prevalent throughout the state. However, due to habitat loss and market hunting, there were few turkeys left in North Carolina by the mid-1900s.

A wide-scale wild turkey restoration program was set in motion by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), with wild turkeys being trapped from within and outside of the state to be relocated to areas of low population density. The program was a massive success and, according to the NCWRC, North Carolina’s population increased from 2,000 birds in 1970 to 265,000 in 2015.

Now, in addition to being a staple in both rural and urban communities, the wild turkey is one of the most popular game animals in the state. According to NCWRC assistant chief Chris Kreh, 20,576 turkeys were harvested in 2022, including 1,777 birds in the youth season. While these numbers may seem startling to some, NCWRC says they are lower than the totals from the previous two years, and that harvest numbers are always tracked to ensure they both reach and do not exceed conservation goals.

Despite the clear conservation success of wild turkey restoration, the species is not immune to the continuing issues of habitat fragmentation and loss, and reduced quality of habitat. Turkeys are ground-nesting birds, meaning they and their poults are exposed to threats from predators both from the ground – such as raccoons, possums, snakes, and coyotes – and from the air – such as hawks, owls, and eagles.

Due to their many predators, turkeys require specific and optimal habitats for their nesting sites, places with adequate ground and air cover. This is one of many reasons why loss of habitat – particularly during nesting seasons – continues to be the largest threat to the turkey population in North Carolina, just as it was nearly a century ago.

But with responsible game management facilitated by the NCWRC and continued advocacy to reduce further habitat loss, there is hope for this vibrant North Carolina native species.


Bates Whitaker, Communications & Marketing Manager


– Written by Bates Whitaker, NCWF Communications & Marketing Manager

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