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Biology Of Turkeys

Wild turkeys have a rather dark plumage, with some degree of iridescence. Turkeys have an featherless head, with brightly colored naked skin which is blue and red in the common turkey, and blue and orange in the ocellated turkey.

Turkeys are sexually dimorphic. Male turkeys (called "toms") are relatively colorful and large, with a body length in the common turkey of up to 4 ft (1.2 m), and a weight of up to 20 lb (9 kg). Turkeys have powerful legs, and male birds have a sharp spur on the back of the foot that can inflict serious wounds during combat with other males or possibly when fending off a predator.

The beak of male common turkeys is adorned by a wattle, which is a long, red, pendulous appendage that develops from tissues over the base of the upper mandible. During courtship displays the wattle is extended to a droopy length that is several times that of the beak. Male common turkeys also develop a fat-rich growth on their breast prior to the breeding season. This tissue helps to sustain the male turkeys during this intensive period of the year, when their frequent, time-consuming, aggressive encounters with other males do not allow them to feed regularly. The constant preoccupation with displaying, mating, and fighting during the breeding period is hard on the toms, and they can be quite emaciated by the time this season has passed.

Wild turkeys mostly occur in forested and shrubby habitats, often with open glades. Turkeys forage on the Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Arizona. Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.

ground in small groups, and spend the night roosting in trees. Turkeys are mostly herbivorous birds, eating a wide range of plant foods, although they also eat insects as they are encountered. Hard tree fruits such as acorns and other nuts, known collectively as "mast," is an important food that is gleaned from the forestfloor. These hard seeds are ground with small stones and other grit in the powerful gizzard of turkeys, so that the nutritious matter can be digested and assimilated.

Turkeys are polygamous, meaning that a male bird will mate with as many females as possible. Male turkeys court females by elaborately spreading their fan-like tail feathers, and by other visual displays, in which the wattle figures prominently. These displays are given while the tom struts proudly about, making loud "gobbling" noises. Male turkeys are extremely aggressive amongst themselves during the breeding season, and well-matched toms may fight to the death over access to females.

Female turkeys are alone responsible for building the ground nest, brooding the eight to 15 eggs, and raising the young. Turkey chicks are precocious, leaving the nest within a day of being born, and following the female about and feeding themselves. Turkeys are gregarious after the breeding season, forming flocks that forage and roost together.

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