The Wild Turkey: History of an All-American Bird

All About Wild Turkeys

May 6, 2019
Wild Turkey

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The American Wild Turkey has become an iconic symbol of Thanksgiving. 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.”

Wild Turkeys in the Americas

  • The first description of the turkey was written by Oviedo in 1525 in his General and Natural History of the Indies.
  • Domestic turkeys were first raised by Native Americans in Mexico and Central America, who bred them into domestication from a subspecies of the North American wild turkey maybe as early as 25 A.D.
  • Spanish explorers took some of those domesticated turkeys back to Europe around 1519. They spread rapidly among European farmers, and were popular fare among the elites.
  • 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.

Return to the Americas!

  • Turkeys returned to the Americas with English colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 1600s. Those colonists were surprised to learn that Native Americans were already tapped into the native wild turkeys that had remained part of the American landscape all along.
  • 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.

To Extinction and Back

  • Turkeys were numerous in Massachusetts in oak and chestnut forests. From 1711 to 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.
  • During most of the 20th century, Wild Turkeys almost went extinct due to habitat loss. But due to an ambitious relocation program, the Wild Turkey can now be found in large numbers in every state in the US except Alaska.

In New Hampshire, we often see wild turkeys in wooded areas at this time of year, enjoying plant nuts and berries. Cars stop in awe of these beautiful birds meandering through the forest.

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Wild Turkey Facts

The Wild Turkey is a different creature than its factory-farmed cousin found in grocery stores. Domestic turkeys are big business today. 

  • Young turkey birds are called poults, and an adolescent is called a jake. 
  • As soon as 24 hours after hatching, a young poult is up and running around in search of food. 
  • When a turkey is excited, it can change the color of its head to red, pink, white or blue. 
  • A wild turkey can run as fast as 25 miles per hour. The domestic turkey has been bred through hundreds of generations to have shorter legs and is much slower on its feet.
  • The wild turkey can fly more than a mile at a time and at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. The domestic turkey has been bred to have outsized, meaty breasts, sacrificing its ability to fly along the way.
  • Wild turkeys are wary and difficult to catch; they also have acute eyesight. Domestic turkeys have no fear of humans.
  • You will find that wild turkeys sleep in trees, roosting high up in the branches every night.

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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