A Wild Turkey Moves to South Arlington

Text and photos by Leah Pellegrino, unless otherwise noted.

In mid-November, residents of a South Arlington condo community welcomed a new, if unusual neighbor—a female Wild Turkey! No one quite knows where she came from, and no male (Tom) turkey has been spotted along with her. She spends her days in a wooded area near the condo development and occasionally ventures into one of courtyards looking for something to eat. We don’t get too close though; she runs off with amazing speed or heads up into one of the trees to escape.

What do Wild Turkeys look like? It’s easy to tell that this is no ordinary bird. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “All About Birds” site, Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are big—about the size of  geese and maybe a bit larger. They are dark in color with brown and white barred wings. The tail feathers are brown and black barred, with a broad black stripe and tipped with white or ivory. Their heads are bare and not covered with feathers—usually greyish in color, with perhaps some red as well.

How does one know if it’s a female or a male Wild Turkey? In the photos on the Cornell Lab site, males have a distinct red beard or on their throats. In fact, their heads are covered with blue and red wattles. They also have a fanned tail. 

Photo of a male wild turkey
Male Wild Turkey, Petra DeBruine/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML101579101).

Females are much darker in appearance with much less red and blue on their heads. They also don’t have the fanned tail; their tails stick straight out.

Photo of a female wild turkey
Female Wild Turkey, Conor Farrell/Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML215183481).

Here are a couple of photos taken of the Wild Turkey in South Arlington. As you can clearly see, she’s female.

What do Wild Turkeys like to eat? According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), it seems that acorns are their favorite food, and with all the oaks in her current neighborhood, this Wild Turkey has lots to eat. Turkeys don’t have a great sense of smell or taste, so they choose acorns based on based on size and shape—they’re not too fussy! In addition to acorns, Cornell Lab adds that they will also eat beech nuts, hickory nuts and other seeds and berries.

The Virginia DWR notes some other interesting facts about Wild Turkeys:

  • Turkeys begin courting in late March or Early April. They lay eggs around mid-April; peak incubation is around the first week of May and eggs hatch about 28 days or so later (early June).
  • Virginia’s Wild Turkey Population is about 180,000 birds.
  • Juvenile males are called “Jakes” while mature males are known as “Toms.” Females are called “hens.” Beards on males can grow 8-12 inches in length.

Cornell Lab provides that turkeys live year around in open forests. They nest on the ground at the base of trees or under piles of brush. They can fly and will roost in trees at night, flying up into branches when the sun goes down and finding the perfect spot to spend the evening. This helps protect them from ground predators such as foxes and coyotes. Nests are sometimes raided by racoons, rat snakes, other birds (like the Great Horned Owl) and rodents.

According to Arlington County Natural Resources Manager, Alonso Abugattas, Wild Turkeys are becoming more common in the Arlington/DC area. His Capital Naturalist blog includes additional items of interest about them. 

Who knows how long this South Arlington Wild Turkey will stay around? Perhaps come springtime, she’ll find a suitable mate and leave to join a flock and start a family. Time will tell.  

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