For the Birds: Thanksgiving Day Bird — the Wild Turkey

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Courting male
Photo by Gene Beall

By Christine Southwick

The turkeys that we traditionally eat on Thanksgiving Day are not the same birds as the wild ones. Domestication of the turkey, a North American native species, has been documented back 2,000 years. Turkeys raised by the Aztecs were taken back to Europe by Spanish explorers. Due to breeding for increased breast meat, domesticated turkeys can no longer fly.

Wild turkey in tree
Photo by Terry Olmsted
Wild Turkeys can and do fly. They fly up into their tree roosts at sundown, starting on the lower limbs and flapping their way upward to higher roosts. When startled, females usually fly away, while males commonly run.

Being over-hunted for their great meat, Wild Turkey numbers plummeted in the US in the early 20th century.

To save many sub-species, the US Fish and Wildlife Service started catching and transplanting Wild Turkeys throughout 49 states.

Washington started getting three sub-species of Wild Turkeys in 1960. These sub-species have adapted to slightly different habitats, but all Wild Turkeys require open forests with nut-bearing trees and open grassy fields with grains and berries, and associated insects.

Wild turkey running
Photo by Lyn Topinka
In the spring, courting males abandon their all-male flocks, strut about, gobble, hum, and make chump sounds to attract several females and warn away competing males.

Males leave nest-making and the raising of the ten to fifteen young to the female. Nests are one inch depressions scratched in the soil, lined with leaves and other local plant materials, and positioned at the base of trees, or under brush piles.

The young leave the nest soon after hatching, but follow their mother for brooding and help with feeding. Young Wild Turkeys, with a few adult females, form large winter flocks of up to 200 turkeys.

Wild turkey in May
Photo by Lyn Topinka
It is a myth that turkeys are so dumb that they will drown in rainstorms.

First, Wild Turkeys are still pretty wily in order to avoid predators like coyotes and bobcats; and two, did you know that Wild Turkeys can swim, if they need to escape?

Another myth is that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Wild Turkey as our National Emblem.

In fact, a seal of office, made in France, was sent to Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately that eagle looked more like a turkey than a Bald Eagle.

Benjamin Franklin came to the turkey’s defense by saying, “For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…”
Update: Turkeys have been domesticated for 2,000 years.

Wild Turkeys have only been domesticated for 2,000 years, with fossils of non-domesticated Wild Turkeys being found that date back more than five million years.

Here are two of my resources:

According to Cornell's All About Birds
"Turkey fossils have been unearthed across the southern United States and Mexico, some of them dating from more than 5 million years ago."
The earliest signs of domestication found to date appear in Maya sites such as Cobá beginning about 100 BC-100 AD. [Reference]

Christine Southwick


Anonymous,  November 24, 2016 at 10:47 PM  

DID YOU MEAN TO SAY THAT " Domestication of the turkey, a North American native species, has been documented back 5,000 years."? OR PERHAPS DOMESTICATION OF THE TURKEY WAS 500 YEARS AGO.

DKH November 26, 2016 at 7:25 PM  

Thank you for your comment. Christine says that it was actually 2,000 years, not 5,000. The article has been updated.

Dr. Scot Plummer March 7, 2018 at 11:23 PM  

This bird is very beautiful.Great post and great awareness Mark Hutchinson action.

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