The Wild Turkey
Updated: May 11
American folklore holds that Ben Franklin rallied for the wild turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle. Like a lot of myth, that wasn’t completely accurate but there was a grain of truth. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin criticized the proposed design for the national seal for our new nation, which depicted an eagle.
Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle...is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” On the other hand, he praised the virtues of the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird, and a true original Native of America...He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”
Although turkeys may have an unpretentious, even humble reputation, the truth is that they are magnificent and quite fascinating. You could even say, admirable. And they hold an honored place in American tradition, even if it is on our dinner tables during Thanksgiving! (According to the National Turkey Federation, 88% of Americans serve turkey for Thanksgiving (although they are domesticated turkeys, not wild turkeys). The average roast turkey weighs 16 pounds. (SEE THURSDAY’S POST ON THE FIRST THANKSGIVING!)
The turkey is not only steeped in savory gravy, but delicious history as well. First, let’s start with the name. Why in the heck would a North American bird be named after a Muslim Mediterranean country? There are several theories, all of them circuitous and dating back to Turkey. One is that Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s took the big birds back to Spain, from which they were introduced to the rest of Europe via Turkey. So Europeans, thinking the birds came from Turkey, called them “turkeys.” At least, that’s one theory. Another is that the birds were introduced into England about 1550 from Turkey and were called “Turkey coqs” because they resembled guineafowl already imported from Constantinople. Shakespeare even used the terms “turkey coq” in his play, Twelfth Night, in 1601 or 1602.
The first Thanksgiving in North American is popularly believed to have taken place at Plymouth Colony in 1621 with Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians who introduced turkey (and other fowl, in addition to lobster, fish, venison, and other game) to Pilgrims, along with cranberries, pumpkin, corn, and beans.
Most of us grew up on the Pilgrim First Thanksgiving and made turkeys and Pilgrims out of construction paper in elementary school to celebrate the myth. But, as romantic and popular as the story is, it’s wrong. The very FIRST Thanksgiving took place in what is today St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565, 56 years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. The Spanish Conquistador and explorer, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, landed on the Florida coast and held a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Thanksgiving to be held in North America by white immigrants. (READ MORE IN THURSDAY’S POST.) But the Spanish were enamored with the wild turkey, as the Pilgrims were, and took them back to Spain to show the New World’s bounty.
Nevertheless, the Pilgrim and Native American Thanksgiving dinner is so embedded in our national character, it is now a full-fledged 400-year-old tradition. The tradition almost died out, however, during the turn-of-century, when, like so much other North American wildlife, they were hunted nearly to extinction and logging and farming destroyed their habitat. Prior to 1500, about ten million turkeys lived in North American, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. But in the very early 1900s, their numbers had been decimated to under 30,000 continent-wide.
Conservation efforts were undertaken to protect the wild turkey. Today, the wild turkey is one of the greatest species revival stories. Their numbers have been restored to about 7 million across the continent and turkeys can be hunted in 49 states.
A wild turkey’s anatomy is nothing less than spectacular and truly a wonder of evolution. The bird boasts an amazing variety of plumage, strangely bumpy skin like an alligator that turns white, pink, red, blue and purple (depending on his degree of stimulation), and a very strange array of appendages that include snoods, caruncles, wattles, breast beards, and leg spurs. Then, of course, there’s the bird’s signature coup de grace: the incredible tail fan of the males that is sometimes also displayed by alpha females as well.
Here’s a brief turkey-parts primer:
Snood – this is a very strange wormlike appendage between the eyes, that hangs down on the side of the beak and waggles when the turkey struts to show off for the female. The snood is just one of the many assets Nature has given the male turkey to attract a mate. It can grow five inches long and turns bright red and gets even longer during excitement. (I’m not going to make any off-color jokes here... But I will say that—you guessed it—snood size matters! Studies have shown that the more testosterone a turkey has, the longer the snood.)
Wattle – another strange appendage that hangs under the neck or chin. Pigs, goats and chickens have wattles too. Dominant toms generally have the largest wattles, that become engorged and bright red during courtship.
Caruncles – not to be confused with “carbuncles” which are boils. But, oddly, turkey caruncles do look like clusters of boils. They are warty protuberances on the head and neck skin of the turkey. At the base of neck just above the chest is the “major caruncle” that looks a lot like...well...testicles. Again, the larger the caruncle, the more testosterone the turkey has. As if this isn’t all odd enough, the skin of a male turkey turns colors, depending on sexual stimulation, from pink to red to aquamarine blue to purple, giving peacocks a run for their money in the color spectrum.
Leg spurs—turkey legs of either sex are gnarly and reptilian. Male turkeys have a leg claw that in dominant males can reach more than two inches and are used to assert dominance over other males.
Breast beard – As if turkeys weren’t already well-endowed with all kinds of fancy appendages for courting, they have one more feathered apparatus that hangs between their breast muscles like a tassel. The breast beard resembles a horse tail but is of fibrous feathers that become erect when the tom is aroused. They can be 12 inches long and especially lucky turkeys can have multiple beards! Female turkeys can also grow beards but they only get 6-7 inches long.
Tail fan – the pride and joy of a wild turkey tom is his impressive tail fan that is made of usually of 18 large “retrice” tail feathers that are beautifully banded and shorter “coverts” in front. All become erect and fan out when the tom is “strutting.” Alpha females may also fan out their tail feathers to show dominance. Young, less dominant male “jakes” also display fanning behavior. Toms literally “strut their stuff” in front of females, sometimes twirling and prancing to showcase their tail fan and all their fancy appendages to maximum effect. Only the dominant turkey breeds with females.
Turkey hens lay one clutch of eggs per year, usually in a large nest in a sheltered area on the ground and incubate in May. She can lay 4-17 eggs but lays only one egg each day. Mom doesn’t sit on the eggs until she is done laying all the eggs. Amazingly, once the first egg hatches, the others begin to hatch as well, often within an hour of one another, called “synchronous hatching.” The baby turkeys, called “poults,” usually hatch in June. Unlike most baby birds, they are born feathered, open-eyed and ready to run.
Turkeys can run and they can fly—for short bursts, up to 55 miles per hour. That’s pretty amazing considering a male turkey can weigh 24 pounds or more. Hens generally weigh half that. (The record for a wild turkey weight is 37.6 pounds shot in Kentucky in 2015.) Even more impressive, they can fly straight up from a standing position to roost in trees, which they do at night or to escape predators.
It makes sense that this amazing North American wild bird has become so central to our national identity. It represents the great bounty of our continent, not just for Native Americans but immigrant Americans too, who gather over it to give thanks. And we can probably all agree that a magnificent roasted turkey on our Thanksgiving dinner table with all the fixins’ is almost as beautiful as a turkey in the wild.
PHOTOS: (1) Turkeys may have an unpretentious reputation but the males are actually spectacularly feathered and colored with a very exotic anatomy. Here, a wild turkey male “tom” is flared in full regalia for females during the breeding season. Breeding takes place in February and March in Southern states and April in northern states. Photo: Tes Randle Jolly. (2) The amazing fanned tail feathers of a male turkey are part of his mating show for females. A tail fan usually included 18 feathers but can vary in number. The primary wing feathers also fan out and drag on the ground as part of the turkey’s “strut.” Photo: Tes Randle Jolly. (3) During their mating dance, male turkey Toms puff up their anatomy to look as large and impressive as possible. Their chest muscles expand like two big balloons and in the middle is a tuft of feathers that hang down between the chest muscles and erect feathers. (4) A turkey’s anatomy is quite exotic. His head alone has strange projections called snoods, wattles, caruncles, and amazing pebbled skin that can turn bright blue, pink, red and purple, with a crown of white. (5) What’s a girl to do? So many attractive suitors! It looks as if this hen is being wooed by six gentlemen callers, but in fact, only the alpha “tom” has the privilege to breed with her. His other male beta brothers, called “jakes,” fan out anyway, even if it’s just for show. (6) One of our favorite American myths is that Ben Franklin proposed the wild turkey for our national bird. Well...not exactly. But not far off. In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle...is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” On the other hand, he praised the virtues of the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird, and a true original Native of America...He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” (7) Turkey hens lay one clutch of eggs per year, usually in a large nest in a sheltered area on the ground and incubate in May. She can lay 4-17 eggs but lays only one each day. Amazingly, once the first egg hatches, the others begin to hatch as well, often within an hour of one another, called “synchronous hatching.” Mom doesn’t sit on the eggs until she is done laying all the eggs. (8) Female wild turkey with babies called “poults” that usually hatch in June. The babies are born feathered, open eyed and ready to run. (9) Wild turkey roosting in a cottonwood tree in Utah about 50 feet above ground. Turkeys often roost at night in flocks for protection from predators. (10) One of American artist Norman Rockwell’s most famous covers for the Saturday Evening Post Magazine. This one celebrating Thanksgiving during WWII in 1943, as part of Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want" series.
"Wild Turkeys" was first posted November 26, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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