20 Fun Facts About the Turkey

Thanksgiving, turkey

With the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow and turkey on everyone’s mind, I thought it would be fun to do a post on some fun and obscure facts about turkeys. I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about this bird, including how it got it’s name, it’s unique physical abilities and that turkeys are the only breed of poultry native to the Western hemisphere.

This post covers the top 20 facts you may not know about domestic and wild turkeys, some of which may change your idea of them beyond being a meal centerpiece once a year.

  1. There are six subspecies of wild turkey, all native to North America. The pilgrims hunted and ate the eastern wild turkey, M. gallopavo silvestris, which today has a range that covers the eastern half of the United States and extends into Canada. These birds, sometimes called the forest turkey, are the most numerous of all the turkey subspecies, numbering more than five million.
  2. Turkeys have great hearing, but no external ears. They can also see in color, have excellent visual acuity and a wide field of vision (about 270 degrees), which makes sneaking up on them difficult. Interestingly, turkeys have a poor sense of smell but an excellent sense of taste.
  3. Domesticated turkeys cannot fly. Wild turkeys can fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. They can also reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on the ground.
  4. Turkeys sometimes spend the night in trees.
  5. The Native American name for turkey is ‘firkee’; some say this is how turkeys got their name. However, when a turkey is scared, it makes a “turk, turk, turk” noise. So who knows, that might be the origin of their name instead.
  6. There are a number of explanations regarding the origin of the turkey as the special guest for Thanksgiving. Some believe Christopher Columbus thought the land he discovered was connected to India, and thought the bird he discovered (the turkey) was a type of peacock. He therefore called it ‘tuka,’ which is ‘peacock’ in Tamil, an Indian language.
  7. The turkey is actually a type of pheasant.
  8. There are approximately 5,500 feathers on an adult wild turkey, including 18 tail feathers that make up the male’s distinct fan.
  9. Turkeys were domesticated by the Indians of pre-columbian Mexico, taken to Spain in the 1500s then spread throughout Europe. Colonists then introduced European-bred strains fo Eastern North America in the 17th century.
  10. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys and their range is spread throughout North America. In the early 1900s the turkey population reached a low of 30,000 due to over hunting. Restoration programs across North America have helped boost the numbers to the current level.
  11. Male turkeys are called “gobblers” after the call they use to announce themselves to females (“hens”) and compete with other males. A wild turkey’s gobble can be heard up to one mile away. A group of related male turkeys will band together to court females though only one member of the group gets to mate. Other turkey sounds include “purrs,” “yelps” and “kee-kees.”
  12. Wild turkeys have very powerful legs and can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. Their top speed in flight is 55 miles per hour.
  13. Benjamin Franklin never proposed the turkey as a symbol for America, but he did once praise it as being “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.
  14. Turkeys are omnivorous and will try many different foods. Most of their diet is grass and grain, but wild turkeys have a varied diet and will also eat insects, berries and small reptiles.
  15. According to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, turkeys grow the most when they are trained to eat several small meals a day. If they are not trained to eat only small meals, they will gorge themselves. Training the turkeys to only eat small meals is simple. All it takes is shaking some feed into their feed trough, or gently rousing the cute little baby turkeys called poults. The poults will learn that activity means food.
  16. The wild turkey’s bald head and fleshy facial wattles can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion The birds’ heads can be red, pink, white or blue.
  17. Just hatched wild turkeys are precocial which means they are born with feathers and can fend for themselves quickly, and they leave the nest within 24 hours to forage for food with their mothers.
  18. According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, turkey chicks need “a minimum of two consecutive hours of undisturbed time four times a day followed by eight to 10 hours of undisturbed nighttime rest.” That’s eight hours a day of rest, followed by an eight- or 10-hour night’s sleep.
  19. Male turkeys have a snood — the long, fleshy attachment to its beak. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation the snood does not have a known function, but it does change form as the male turkey, or tom, moves. When the gobbler relaxes, the snood retracts. When he struts, his snood engorges with blood and extends.
  20. Turkeys can have heart attacks. Turkey in fields near Air Force test areas over which the sound barrier was broken were known to drop dead from the shock of passing jet.

So enjoy eating and relaxing on Thanksgiving and feel free to share some of these turkey fun facts while you celebrate. Did I miss any? Let me know below!

Here is a list of resources referenced to create this post. There were several, and each had very interesting insights that surprisingly didn’t repeat themselves!

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2011/11/14-fun-facts-about-turkeys/#ixzz2lnpFuZRm

http://www.infoplease.com/spot/tgturkeyfacts.html#ixzz2lhPD25ud

http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/10-turkey-facts-you-might-not-have-known

Photo credit: Boston Public Library 

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