The Wild Turkey: History of an All-American Bird

All About Wild Turkeys

Nov 20, 2017
Wild Turkey


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At Thanksgiving, we think of the American Wild Turkey which has graced many a plate since the early settlers arrived in the early 1600s.  The Wild Turkey needs no introduction so perhaps a brief history about our native bird is in order. 

Brief History of Wild Turkeys

  • In the early 1800’s, Alexander Wilson provided so much information on the natural history of the turkey in his encyclopedic American Ornithology that John James Audubon was unable to truly improve on the knowledge of the species in his later book, Birds of America.
  • Benjamin Franklin—commenting on the design of the national seal—disparages the bald eagle, writing that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character.” When the idea of the turkey is raised, he expresses preference, stating that “the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… 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.”
  • The first description of the turkey was written by Oviedo in 1525 in his General and Natural History of the Indies. The turkey was sent from Mexico to Spain early in the 16th century.  It was then introduced to England around 1530. From there they spread to France, Germany and Italy. Europeans spread them to their colonies in Asia, Africa and Oceania. It returned to North America with the English colonists who arrived in Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620.
  • In 1541, Archbishop Cranmer ordered that large fowl such as cranes, swans and turkeys “should be but one in a dish”. The turkey became a common dish at all festivals in England during the 1500s. They were the usual fare at Christmas Dinner.
  • Audubon once had a pet turkey in Henderson, Kentucky that he caught at the age of 2 days old. It became the favorite of the village and followed anyone who called it. At age 2 years it flew off and did not return. A while later, Audubon’s ordered his dog to chase a large gobbler he saw during a walk of 5 miles. The turkey paid no attention to the dog and Audubon realized it was his favorite pet, being unafraid of the dog.
  • Turkeys were numerous in Massachusetts in oak and chestnut forests.  Between 1711-1717, they sold at market for 1 shilling 4 pence, but by 1820 the birds had greatly declined and the price had increased 10 fold. The last turkey was killed in Massachusetts in 1821.
  • They have made a great recovery and today the turkey is the only bird in the Western Hemisphere to achieve worldwide attention through domestication. Domestic turkeys are a multi-billion dollar market in the United States.

Here are a few interesting facts about turkeys:

  • Young turkey birds are called poults and an adolescent is called a jake. 
  • When a turkey is excited the turkey can change the color of his head to red, pink, white or blue. 
  • A turkey can run as fast as 25 mile per hour. 
  • As soon as 24 hours after hatching a young poult is up and running around in search of food. 
  • You will find that wild turkeys sleep in trees.  

Hope you learned something to talk about at the Thanksgiving table.

For more wild turkey facts, see our Turkey Trivia page.  

About This Blog

Tom Warren has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center.

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Fact: There have been more "Turkey" drives than "Cattle" drives in America's history.

Some of the turkey drives were done to feed the railroad workers. In California, if you request it, they will send you a map of the turkey drives, and when they occured!


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