Meet the turkey

Photo by Vince pakala. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 11-16-2022.

If you’re in United States, next Thursday is Thanksgiving! And we all know what that means – many of us will enjoy a turkey dinner.

Beyond the domesticated turkey on my dinner table, I’ve become more aware of their wild cousins lately. Quite a few turkeys are running around the towns surrounding Boston! In fact, there’s a group of three turkeys that hang around near my office on campus. One even made it into the building a few weeks ago!

But while I’ve seen turkeys, I didn’t know much about them. For instance, did you know that there are only two species of wild turkeys? There is a turkey species in Central America called the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). The turkey you’re probably more familiar with is called the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

Ocellated turkey. Photo by Bernard Dupont. Retrieved from Flickr on 11-16-2022.

There are six subspecies of wild turkey that vary subtly based on coloration, habitat, and behavior. The wild turkey in my neck of the woods is the Eastern wild turkey, and it’s the most populous wild turkey in North America, with 5.1 to 5.3 million birds. The range of the Eastern wild turkey covers the entire eastern half of the U.S. and extends into Canada. Other wild turkey subspecies are:

  • The Osceola wild turkey or Florida wild turkey (found in the Florida peninsula).
  • The Rio Grande wild turkey (found from Texas to Utah).
  • Merriam’s wild turkey (range in the Rocky Mountains and neighboring prairies).
  • Gould’s wild turkey (found in the central valleys to the northern mountains of Mexico and into the southern U.S.).
  • The Southern Mexican wild turkey (located in central Mexico and the only subspecies that doesn’t live in the U.S. or Canada).

Why the name ‘turkey’?

Growing up, I always wondered why there was a bird called ‘turkey’ and a country called ‘Turkey.’ There’s no way they could be connected, right?

It turns out I was wrong. Although I found two separate stories, both suggested that wild turkeys were indeed named for the country.

One story theorizes that turkeys looked similar to African Guinea Fowl, a bird native to Turkey. The similarity led Europeans to name turkeys after the country.

The other story suggests that the name ‘turkey’ is a holdover from when ships passed through the country on their way to European markets.

Either way, wild turkeys are indeed named after the country of Turkey.

New World bird

Wild turkeys are one of only two New World domesticated birds. (As a reminder, the New World is North and South America; the Old World is Europe, Africa, and Asia). The other New World native is the Muscovy Duck.

Wild turkeys have likely been domesticated for at least 1000 years. Today’s domesticated turkeys were domesticated from the Southern Mexican wild turkey. The Spaniards brought these domesticated birds back with them to Spain, where they then spread throughout Europe. Domesticated turkeys were so common by 1620 in Europe that the Pilgrims brought them on the Mayflower. Imagine their surprise when they found wild turkeys already living in Massachusetts!

Feathers and snoods!

Wild turkeys have soooo many feathers: an adult can have between 5,000 and 6,000!

In addition to these feathers, wild turkeys have some pronounced characteristics that you’ve probably seen. For instance, males and females have waddles (a piece of flesh that dangles under the beak) and snoods (red flesh on top of the beak). In addition to having a great name, snoods play an essential role in female mate choice: females prefer males with longer snoods. Oh, and males fill their snood with blood to make them bigger when trying to attract a female.

A snood pre- and post- being filled with blood. Photos by MTSOfan. Retrieved from Flickr on 11-16-2022.

In addition to their similarities, there are differences between wild turkey sexes. For instance, all male turkeys (but only some female ones) have beards, a bundle of feathers sprouting from their chest. Male turkeys are also the only ones that gobble; this sound is used to attract females for mating.

Males have beards (and also gobble) (and more warts)

The proof is in the poop

Another difference between wild turkey sexes: their poop is different.

Males have curved poop that is shaped like the letter J. In contrast, females have spiral-shaped poop.

Of course, the natural question in response to that information is, why? The answer comes down to the anatomy of male and female turkeys. Like most birds, turkeys have a cloaca. This structure is a single hole that takes care of both waste disposal and reproduction. Now, female turkeys also have to pass eggs through their cloaca. This leads to a stretchy and spacious cloaca tract that can accommodate eggs passing through. And, of course, this means that poop also has the space to swirl around into a coil shape. But since male turkeys don’t need to lay eggs, their cloaca tract is much tighter, which leads to their poop getting squeezed out in a J shape.

One last poop fact, I promise. Turkey poop can also be used to guess the age of a turkey: the bigger the poop, the older the bird.

Surprisingly agile

Wild turkeys are surprisingly agile (domesticated ones tend not to be since we’ve bred them to be unnaturally large). Wild turkeys can fly quite quickly, too: they can hit up to 60 miles an hour in the air. They also roost in trees at night.

Wild turkeys are also quick runners – they can reach a running speed of 25 miles an hour!

We should all take a second and make sure that our Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t decide to run away!

Ready to run. Photo by Becky Matsubara. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 11-16-2022.



Mental Floss

All About Birds

National Wildlife Foundation

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Smithsonian Magazine

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