The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo
) is a statewide, permanent resident of Illinois. It lives in wooded areas and swamps.
The female, or hen, is about 36 inches in length. The male, also called a tom or gobbler, is about 48 inches long. Both sexes have a blue head with no feathers and barred wing feathers (alternating dark and white colors). The body feathers are dark brown with a shiny, copper-colored sheen that is more prominent in the male's feathers. The male has a rust-colored tip on each tail feather, a bright red wattle on the throat and a "beard" that projects from his chest. The beard is made of modified feathers that look like long, stiff hairs. The male's head can change to red in color during the breeding season. He has a spur on the back of each leg near the feet.
Turkeys are adapted for moving on the ground. They walk easily and can run quickly with their long legs. Each foot has three toes that face forward and one toe that points to the rear. Their feet help them to scratch in leaf litter for food. They eat acorns, grains, berries, fruits, nuts, insects and other items. Turkeys can fly well, too, and do so daily to roost high in a tree.
Nesting starts in March. The female lays eight to 12 eggs in a nest she makes on the ground out of dead leaves. The eggshells are tan with red-brown spots. Eggs will begin hatching after about 28 days.
Wild turkeys were abundant in Illinois prior to settlement by people of European descent. During the 1800s, unregulated hunting and the extensive clearing of forests started the decline of this species in the state. Wild turkey hunting was stopped in 1903 in Illinois in an effort to preserve the remaining populations, but by 1910 they had been eliminated from the state. Wildlife conservation laws were enacted by the legislature in the early 1900s, and beginning in 1959, wild-trapped turkeys were obtained from other states to try to again establish this species in Illinois. From the 1970s through the year 2003, wild turkeys were trapped from areas where they were thriving and transplanted to suitable habitat that had not yet been re-colonized. The project was successful, and Illinois now has wild turkeys throughout the state where habitat is suitable.
The wild turkey is hunted in both the spring and fall in Illinois. Special hunts are held in the spring for youth under the age of 16 years old. Learn more about the regulations by reading the latest version of the Digest of Illinois Hunting and Trapping Regulations available on the publications page.