Wild Turkeys (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Meleagris gallopavo) are found throughout large areas of the United States and Mexico, especially in the east. They are particularly common in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Males turkeys begin courtship in March and April and advertise their fitness by strutting, puffing their chests, spreading their tail feathers, and dragging their wings. Their brightly-colored heads attract potential mates, and their loud gobbling noises both intimidate rival males and attract females. Dominant males mate with as many females as they can, and after mating the females seek out nest sites on the ground. They dig shallow depressions in the soil hidden in dense vegetation and lay as many as 14 eggs over a two week period. In spite of their best efforts to keep their young hidden, many turkey eggs and hatchlings fall prey to raccoons, opossums, snakes, owls, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and bears. Adult birds, in contrast, will use their strong legs and talons to fight off all but the largest of attackers.
Although these birds face abundant predators, it was human hunting and habitat loss that drove them to the brink of extinction early in the twentieth century. It’s estimated that only around 30,000 animals lived in North America in the early 1900s. Conservation efforts have since brought their numbers back up to around seven million. In the time that humans have reversed their course on turkey protection, these large birds have since become one of America’s great success stories of conservation.