A wild turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) is a large galliform (chickenlike) bird. Males weigh up to twenty pounds, and females weigh about half as much. The turkey is characterized by its large size, iridescent plumage, and large fan-shaped tail. The head and neck are blue-gray with pink wattles and caruncles. Males and occasionally females have beards, which are brushlike clusters of keratinous fibers that hang from midbreast. Turkeys are adept at running. During the day turkeys spend most of their time on the ground, obtaining fruits, seeds, and tubers, especially acorns, chufa (sedge), black gum, and sabal palmetto and hickory nuts. They are also strong fliers and attain speeds approaching sixty miles per hour. At night they roost in the tops of tall trees, usually in swamps.
In springtime high-ranking males guard harems of females. These males accomplish most of the breeding. Nesting in South Carolina occurs from late March to late May. Turkeys nest on the ground and lay ten to twelve eggs each. The incubation period averages twenty-eight days. The young (poults) leave the nest soon after hatching and are able to fly in ten days. The average life span of a wild turkey is about two years, but one bird is known to have survived for thirteen years. Wild turkeys are hunted in the spring, when males can be lured by imitations of their mating call (gobble).
Before European settlement, wild turkeys were relatively abundant in eastern North America and were a common food of Indians. During the nineteenth century the eastern population was greatly reduced by habitat destruction and by hunting. In South Carolina the species survived mainly in coastal areas on large plantations, where they were protected and managed as game. The wild turkey population in the eastern United States fell to about thirty thousand by the early 1900s. Subsequently, the species made a dramatic recovery due the enactment of hunting laws and to programs that transplanted wild-caught birds to proper habitats. The eastern populations had increased to about 1.3 million by 1980 and topped 6.4 million as of 2004. Turkeys now are found throughout South Carolina in suitable habitats such as heavy woods. They have even colonized wooded areas in the suburbs, where they have become relatively tame. The National Wild Turkey Federation, which sponsors significant educational and conservation programs, is located in Edgefield.
Hewitt, Oliver H. The Wild Turkey and Its Management. Washington, D.C.: Wildlife Society, 1967.
Latham, Roger. The Complete Book of the Wild Turkey. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1956.
Williams, Lovett E. The Book of the Wild Turkey. Tulsa, Okla.: Winchester, 1981.