Happy Thanksgiving: Fun Facts About Turkeys

Many holidays have animals associated with them. Christmas has its reindeer, Easter its rabbits, and Halloween lays claim to a variety of creepy critters. However, no holiday is more dependent on an animal than Thanksgiving. After all, what Thanksgiving is complete without turkey? While most of us don’t really think about turkeys much beyond eating them with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, the truth is there is much more to this bird than meets the eye.

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Modern Day Dinosaur

Turkeys belong to the group of birds known as the galliformes, or gamebirds and are closely related to chickens and pheasants. Gamebirds are some of the most ancient of all living birds, with fossils dating back to the late Cretaceous. This means that the earliest turkey ancestors would have walked with dinosaurs. Like all galliformes, turkeys are highly sexually dimorphic with males being considerably larger and more vibrantly colored than females. Males, known as toms, can weigh around 20 pounds while females, or hens, are half the size. Even though they spend the majority of their time on the ground and can run and speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, turkeys are fully capable of flight. They will only take to the air as a last-ditch escape method and usually do not remain airborne for more than a quarter of a mile. Ideal turkey habitat consists of  forest interspersed with open areas and they can be found in fields, marshes, and prairies. Turkeys are omnivores that spend the bulk of their day foraging for grasses, seeds, berries, insects, and the occasional small vertebrate. Several species of turkey have been described from the fossil record, but only two exist today. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is found throughout a wide range of North America and is made up of numerous subspecies, while the ocellated turkey (M. ocellata) is only found in one 50,000 sqaure mile region of Mexico and in some parts of northern Belize and Guatemala. Ocellated turkeys are smaller and more brightly colored than wild turkeys.
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Wattle You Looking At?

Probably the most distinctive feature of a turkey is its bald, vividly colored head. The head of a turkey is covered in fleshy knobs called caruncles that are typically a bright red  or bluish color. Most people believe that the fleshy appendage dangling from the top of the tom’s beak is a wattle, but the wattle is actually the extended flap of skin on the bird’s throat. What people mistake for the wattle is actually another organ unique to turkeys called a snood. When excited, the tom can engorge his snood with blood to make it appear erect. All of these bizarre features—caruncles, wattle, snood—have evolved to help turkeys attract mates. Toms put on an elaborate display known as strutting where they will spread their tail fan, erect both their snood and a fur-like tuft of feathers on their chest called a beard, and vocalize. In addition to the familiar gobble, turkeys make a drumming sound using air sacs in their chest cavity and a sound known as spitting. Strutting is meant to both impress hens and intimidate rival toms. More dominant birds generally have more colorful heads and larger snoods. If toms cannot successfully intimidate each other they will come to blows, and each foot bears a large spur evolved as weapon. After mating, the hen seeks out a safe place to lay her eggs. Turkeys tend to lay in clutches of 10 to 14 eggs, which are then incubated for about four weeks. Baby turkeys are called poults and are born precocial. With the first 24 hours after hatchling, they are capable of leaving the nest and following their mother. The majority of poults fall victim to predators within their first two weeks of life.

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Humans and Turkeys

Humans and turkeys have had a very long relationship. Turkeys were first domesticated in Mesomerica more than 2,00 years ago and are the only major domesticated animal to have originated in North America. Domestic turkeys are the same species as wild turkeys, although they can grow up to 50 pounds and are thus too heavy to fly. The extra weight is centered around the breast and thigh muscles, as these are the most commonly consumed parts of the bird. In addition to their meat, turkey feathers are used as down stuffing, their guano as fertilizer, and their biproducts as feed for other livestock. Europeans first discovered turkeys in the 1500’s and initially mistook them for a form of guinea fowl, which were well-known and usually imported by route through the country of Turkey. The birds were thus called turkey-cocks, cock being the term for a male gamebird, but eventually the second part of the name was dropped. Benjamin Franklin favored choosing the turkey as the national bird of the United States rather than the bald eagle. Numerous native tribes placed symbolic meaning upon the turkey. The Aztecs associated them with their trickster deity, Tezcatlipoca, and the Navajo consider it to be a sacred bird. Today, the wild turkey is one of the most popular sport animals and has be introduced to parts of Europe, Hawaii, and New Zealand.

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For info on how domestication works, check out our What Is Domestication? Center!

For info on what traits turkeys share with dinosaurs, check out our Similarities Between Birds and Dinos Center!

For info on human-turkey conflict, check out our Living With Wildlife Center!