Know Your Turkey Facts and History

Though native to North America, the wild turkey probably wasn’t part of the First Thanksgiving. Read more for your fill of turkey facts.
Terri Schlichenmeyer
November/December 2010

Two wild turkey toms on the strut.
courtesy Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation
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Legend has it that Ben Franklin lobbied Congress to make the wild turkey America’s National Bird. Good thing he didn’t: Imagine how empty our Thanksgiving tables would look. 

Although nobody really knows where Meleagris gallopavo (the scientific name for a common turkey) came from or who first domesticated it, we do know that early Mexicans tamed the turk in pre-
Columbian times. Turkey carcasses have been discovered at archaeological sites dating back nearly 6,000 years, which surely meant leftovers for somebody, sometime. North American Indians called the bird “firkee,” but some say Columbus listened to the “turk, turk, turk” sound and named the bird himself.
 

What a turkey! 

Though not all Native Americans relished turkey on their tables (some considered the bird fowl in more ways than one), explorers found it tasty and returned to Europe with new, feathered fare. In the early 1500s, Spain embraced turkeys for feasts; by the middle 1500s, upper-class English diners were dining on turkey. 

Within 170 years, those Englishmen were playing the “Mine’s Bigger Than Yours” game back in America, with various chroniclers bragging about 40- to 60-pound wild turkeys on the spit. While they were almost surely exaggerating, wild turkeys then really were much larger than domestic turkeys. Today, the vice is versa: wild gobblers tend to weigh 15 to 18 pounds dressed, while a naked domestic bird can weigh more than twice that.  

And there are more differences: While wild turkeys have retained their ability to run (they can briefly best even the most accomplished athlete) and fly (as fast as the National Speed Limit), most domestic turkeys can strut for short distances, if they’re lucky, and cannot fly at all. In the wild, the average turkey lives to a ripe old age of 4 years, while the bird in the barn goes bye-bye after 612 months. Domestic turkeys have to make do with mostly white feathers, while their wild brethren come in a wide variety of colors, including brown, black, reddish and iridescent blue. Wild turkeys, by the way, were almost hunted to extinction about a hundred years ago but returned to safe levels in the wild, thanks to conservation efforts.  

Despite the myth that turkeys will drown by looking into the sky during a rainstorm (which is just that: a myth), turkeys are no dumb bunnies. They’re social critters and, though toms will fight for territory, they generally like to hang out together. They are curious, especially when it comes to people. Turkeys see in color, have three times the daytime vision of humans, and their iconic gobble (used only by talkative toms) can be heard up to a mile away. Turkey meat is low in fat, high in protein, and makes for a great feast. 

Which brings us to this: How did the turkey get wrapped up in Thanksgiving?  

Though you simply know that this year’s White House turkey will gain a pardon (just like every other “official” bird since 1947), some wonder if the bird even needed a pardon nearly 400 years ago. There’s a possibility – gasp! – that T-Day was originally not D-Day for the turkey. 

Historians have hinted that various seafood and venison were probably on the menu at the First Thanksgiving, as well as apples and maize. Though it’s been included in legend throughout the centuries, nobody knows for sure if turkey had a place at that table. Still, Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for an official thanks-giving American holiday in 1846, and because our Victorian ancestors loved the bird, turkey got swept up in the celebration.  

Today, we eat more turkey at Thanksgiving than Christmas and Easter combined; the total amounts to nearly 20 pounds of meat per person, per year.  

And that’s a fact you can gobble up! 

Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.  


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