Let’s Talk Turkey: The History of a Wild Icon in America

The turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of wildlife conservation’s greatest success stories. Unlike the accomplishment of cooking up a delicious stuffed turkey for Thanksgiving, this success story is about wild turkey. In the early 19th Century the wild turkey was reduced to a population of just 30,000.  Today, the population numbers about 7 million in North America.

Rio Grande Wilid Turkey puffing out his feathers. U.S. FWS photo by Robert Burton.
The domesticated turkey of today bears little resemblance to their wild ancestors. Turkeys are a native North American bird that was a food source for the Native Americans who introduced turkeys to the recently-arrived Pilgrims and Spanish Conquistadors in the 15th Century.  The Aztec Indians of Mexico domesticated the Mexican subspecies of the wild turkey (called guajolotes) and the Spanish explorers took some of these back to Europe in the mid-16th Century where they became common farmyard animals.  These domestic turkeys eventually completed the circuit and came back to North American turkey farms from Europe.  In fact the domesticated versions  are so much larger and with so much more breast meat that they are unable to fly and have lost the instincts their wild cousins depend upon for their survival.   The Mexican subspecies is now endangered in the wild but the other subspecies in North America are thriving.

Original wild turkey distribution in North America
Wild turkeys can fly and run at incredible speeds. They reach up to 55 mph flying and 25 mph running.  They are also far more beautiful than the white domestic version that becomes the supermarket’s butterball. The wild turkey’s dark feathers are iridescent with shades of red, green and copper that shine when hit by the sun.  The male bird (called a gobbler, or Tom) is the most colorful with a bright red head and neck wattle with a beautiful fan of tail feathers that it spreads out to impress the lady turkeys (called hens).

Turkeys are the largest member of the grouse family and they are the second largest wild bird in North America (after Trumpeter swans).  Males weigh 11-24 lbs and females 5-12 lbs. Like many sexually dimorphic species, males are selected for maximum sex appeal while females are more sensibly selected to be the right size to glean food from their environment and escape predators.  Males can get away with being larger than females as they leave all the rearing of the chicks (poults) to the hens and are not a part of family flocks.

A flock of wild turkey as they strolled by. Photo by Sterling Miller
Although wild turkeys were once nearly extirpated, the four American subspecies have been restored to most of their former distribution, and to some areas where wild turkeys didn’t originally occur. Turkey hunters were a major force behind the recovery of this bird through their support of the National Wild Turkey Federation and pressure on state wildlife departments. Wild turkeys are among the most difficult animals to hunt as they have extremely keen eyesight and are very smart. Hunters usually try to attract gobblers during the spring breeding season by imitating the calls of females or other males and it takes a lot of practice to be to fool a wary gobbler.

Benjamin Franklin praised the wild turkey and dissed our national bird, the bald eagle, as being “a Bird of bad moral charcter….[who] does not get his living honestly.” I suppose this criticism stems from the fact that smaller birds attack eagles with impunity and eagles steal food from osprey and other birds. Franklin contrasted the bald eagle with the turkey,

“…a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America….Though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

No doubt Franklin’s perception of turkey’s as “vain” reflects the male bird’s strutting behavior during breeding season.  Courtship displays like this, however, are common in many birds and other animals and serve a vital purpose in allowing females to choose the best available mate to father their offspring.  Franklin, himself, was known to dress up to impress the ladies and this is no different in intent or function from what many wildlife species, including turkeys, do.

Today, the term “turkey” has come to mean different things including “a stupid, foolish, or inept person.” However, this definition must refer to domestic turkeys and not the the canny wild turkey. While the turkey on your Thanksgiving table is very different from the wild turkey, this success story is one I encourage a share this holiday season.

What wild animal or plant are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments below!