Turkeys will be the centerpiece of most American’s Thanksgiving meal: first in the kitchen as they’re stuffed, trussed and basted, then at the table as they’re carved and plated.
But when’s the last time you thought about a turkey as something other than breast, thigh or wing, white or dark meat? When’s the last time you thought about the turkey as a bird? Not the domesticated version, bred and farmed for consumption, but its wild counterpart?
Turkeys were revered in ancient Mexican cultures.
In 300 B.C., turkeys were more than just the centerpiece meal at the table. In fact, Mayan religious imagery depicts turkeys as representations of God, and they worshipped as symbols of power and prestige. On Thanksgiving, we give thanks for live turkeys—not the ones stuffed with breadcrumbs.
The American turkey is named after the country Turkey due to a case of mistaken identity.
An African bird called the guinea fowl (which resembles the American turkey) was brought to Europe through Turkish lands by the Portuguese. Europeans called these birds ‘turkish chicken’ or ‘turkey cock.’ When Europeans saw a similar-looking bird in North America, they thought it was the same fowl and the name turkey cock—later shortened to turkey—remained.
Ben Franklin never lobbied for the turkey over the eagle as the national bird, per the folks at the Franklin Institute. Franklin did, however, write a letter to his daughter wherein he called the eagle “lazy” and morally bankrupt, while praising the turkey as respectable and a “bird of courage.”
Wild turkeys were at the brink of extinction.
In the early 1900s, the population of wild turkeys hit a record low of nearly 30,000 birds as a result of pervasive hunting. Fortunately, effective restoration programs were introduced and the populations recovered. If only all turkeys were allowed to run wild.
You can tell a turkey’s mood by looking at them.
The ability to change color is not unique to chameleons and octopi—turkeys literally show their true colors, too. The skin on a turkey’s head (the snood) and the skin under their throat (the wattle) can change between shades of red, white, and blue depending on how stressed, agitated, calm, or excited they are.
Individual turkeys have a unique voice and a wide range of vocalizations.
If you think all turkeys sound the same, science (and the turkeys) beg to differ. Turkeys are able to identify individuals by their voice which is how they recognize one another. Apparently, not all gobbles sound the same in turkey talk. Turkeys have elaborate vocal skills and can exhibit over 20 different vocalizations. Each has a distinct meaning ranging from a cordial greeting to a warning of danger.
Wild turkeys can fly short distances but most domesticated turkeys cannot.
Descendants of the wild turkey have been bred into the large, domesticated birds that we see today in order to increase meat yield for human consumption. This unnaturally large size is not conducive for flight. Trim turkeys left to roam and forage on their own are lighter which allows them to take to the air—if only for less than 100 yards.
One can tell a turkey’s gender by their poop shape.
Perhaps save this fact for after dinner, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Female droppings have a spiral shape while those of males are ‘J’ shaped. This has to do with the difference in reproductive anatomy of the cloaca—a one-stop exit for reproductive and digestive purposes. Who knows, this fact could come in handy in an obscure online trivia game.
Benjamin Franklin thought turkeys were more majestic than eagles.
If Ben Franklin had his way, America’s national bird might be the turkey. In a letter he wrote to his daughter in 1784, Franklin praised the turkey as “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America.” On the contrary, he wrote that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character,” “does not get his living honestly,” and is “too lazy to fish for himself.”
Turkeys swallow stones to aid digestion.
Anyone who has seen Moana may recall her sidekick, Hei Hei, attempting to eat a large stone. While the writers exaggerated the characteristic for comedic effect, there’s actually some truth to it. Turkeys don’t have teeth, so they swallow small stones to help grind up food in their first stomach—the gizzard. Bonus fact: turkeys have two stomachs.
Turkeys don’t sweat and would easily overheat under that coat of 5,000 to 6,000 iridescent feathers if it weren’t for their wattle. The skin on the wattle, that jiggly mass of neck flesh, helps turkeys release heat.
Turkeys are highly intelligent and sensitive birds.
Owing to their intelligence, turkeys can remember precise details of an area even after a year of absence. Turkeys also have incredible emotional intelligence. They express empathy for other birds, form lasting social bonds, display affection, and even purr when they feel content and comforted.
Turkeys have superpowers.
Turkeys have keen hearing even though they lack external ears. Instead, they have small holes behind their eyes and can accurately locate sounds up to about a mile away. The placement of their eyes enables a 270-degree field of vision compared to humans’ 180 degrees. In addition, turkeys have superior color vision and can see UV light!
Wild turkeys sleep in trees.
Turkeys spend most of their time on the ground but when it’s time to sleep, they fly up into trees. This is because turkeys can’t see well at night and to protect themselves from predators, they roost at dusk and fly down at dawn.
They can change colors.
Well, their heads do at least! You can tell a turkey’s emotions by the color of their heads. Colors can change from red to blue to white, depending on how excited or calm they are. The more intense the colors are, the more intense their emotions.