The smoke morph wild turkey


Around our area of Carmichael, California there are a lot of wild turkeys, and occasionally we see a scarce version that is called a smoke morph. This happens to only about 1% of the wild turkey population and they are not albino, melanistic, or what is called leucistic. It is also a common misconception that these white/grey birds with the remarkable graphite black coloration are a hybrid combination of a domestic turkey and a wild turkey. This is simply not true.


How these white-colored birds get this great coloration is a bit tricky. The smoke morph variety is actually a mutation in wild turkeys that is caused by a single recessive gene. In order for a turkey to receive the smoke coloration, it must have two of these recessive genes.


If an offspring gets only one recessive gene, it will have normal coloring, however, it will still be a carrier of the smoke form. For a turkey offspring to get the smoke color, both parents must carry that gene, even if both have normal coloring.


The gene that produces the smoke variation is not very common, so the odds of both parents being carriers are not very high. And even if both parents carry the gene, a high percentage of their offspring are typically born with the normal vibrant coloration.


Some people call the smoke morph variation as smoke phase; however, the term “phase” implies that it is a temporary condition. It is not, and the birds will retain this coloration for life. As mentioned, only about 1 in 100 wild turkeys receive this smoke coloring, with the majority being females.


There are, of course, albino versions of the wild turkey, however, the chances of seeing one are slim. Albino wild turkeys occur only about 1 out of 100,000 and to see one is rare due to their survival rate in the wild. Their overall immune system is not as developed as their colored brothers, and in the wild, their bright white plumage provides no camouflage from predators. Even the smoke morph versions, although not purely white, lack a certain degree of concealment ability. Against the darker brush and shrubbery, they also stand out.


We have all heard the story about Benjamin Franklin wanting the turkey to be America’s National Bird. This is really just a myth that is bigger than the one about a smoke morph turkey coming from a domestic and a wild turkey. Old Ben simply said that the bald eagle is a bird of bad moral character and that the turkey is a much more respectable bird.


The earliest turkeys evolved in North America some 20 million years ago and it is thought that they were first domesticated by the Aztecs. The Spaniards had brought them to Europe from their forays into Mexico in 1519. Turkeys reached England by about 1524 and it was the Pilgrims who actually brought several turkeys with them to America on their 1620 voyage.


Today this magnificent bird is farm-bred and forms a large part of our traditional November Thanksgiving meal while large flocks of wild turkeys are growing in areas once decimated by overhunting and loss of habitat. They seem to rather enjoy their freedom as they wander around city neighborhoods.


It is estimated that some 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, 22 million on Christmas, and 19 million on Easter.


So now that you know just about all there is to know about the smoke morph wild turkey, you can add another drop in the bucket of knowledge!

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography and Nida Jackson Photography. Please contact me with any questions, comments, or authorization to use photos or for signed, high-resolution prints.

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