It is the holliday season and soon families will be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. But the wild turkey we usually see in photos or pictures is not the same as the domestic turkey that we serve at Thanksgiving. Domestic turkeys weigh twice what a wild turkey does and most domestic turkeys are so heavy they are unable to fly. The great majority of domesticated turkeys are bred to have white feathers because their pin feathers are less visible when the carcass is dressed, although brown or bronze-feathered varieties are also raised. Wild turkeys, while technically the same species as domesticated turkeys, have a very different taste from farm-raised turkeys as well. Almost all of the meat is "dark" with a more intense flavor.
Males have iridescent red, green, copper, bronze and gold feathers. They use these bright colors to great advantage when attracting females during breeding season. Females have brown or gray feathers. They make great camouflage and hide hens when they sit on their nests.
Males have brightly colored, nearly featherles heads. During breeding season the color of their heads alternates between red, white and blue, often changing in a few seconds. A hen's head is gray-blue and has some small feathers for camouflage.
Both males and females have fleshy growths on their heads known as caruncles. They also both have snoods, fleshy protrubances that hang over their bills and can be extended or contracted at will. The snood of an adult male is usually much larger than that of a female. No one knows for sure what these growths are for, but both probably developed as ways to attract mates.
A male turkey grows a cluster of long, hairlike feathers from the center of its chest. This cluster is known as the turkey's beard. On adult males, these beards average about 9 inches long.
10 to 20 percent of hens also grow beards. The longest beard on record is more than 18 inches long.
Wild turkey legs are reddish-orange with four toes on each foot. Male wild turkeys grow large spurs on the backs of their lower legs. These spurs are pointed, bony spikes and are used for defense and to establish dominance. Spurs can grow up to 2 inches in length. The longest spurs on record are 2.25 inches long.
Wild turkey tails are usually 12 to 15 inches long and are banded at their tips. The color of the bands in the tail varies by subspecies.
Peacocks aren't the only birds who use their fancy tails to attract a mate. Each spring male turkeys try to befriend as many females as possible. Male turkeys, also called "Tom Turkeys" or "Gobblers" puff up their bodies and spread their tail feathers (just like a peacock).
The Merriam’s turkey is Montana’s newest upland game bird. A native of the pine-oak woodlands of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, it was first introduced into central Montana in 1954. Releases were made in the Long Pines of southeastern Montana near Ekalaka and near Ashland. As turkeys prospered in these areas, more birds were trapped and transplanted to other parts of the state. Since the early 1950’s, all areas of the state considered to be suitable wild turkey habitat have received transplanted birds. Merriam’s turkey habitat in Montana is generally restricted to open ponderosa pine woodlands in rugged terrain. Turkeys have been most suc¬cessful in woodlands where about one-half of the vegetative cover consists of ponderosa pine with the remainder grasses, deciduous trees, and shrubs in scattered openings and drainageways throughout the woodland.