Benjamin Franklin never proposed that the wild turkey be a symbol for America, but he did praise it in a letter to his daughter as being “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle and “a bird of courage.”
Despite what you may have learned in elementary school, there were probably no turkeys at the first Thanksgiving. The written menu listed fowl, but this most likely meant ducks, goose, grouse, passenger pigeons, swans—or maybe even bald eagles. Whether there was turkey on the menu or not back then, however, today we strongly associate the bird with the holiday.
Wild turkeys are smart and sensitive. But, let’s face it: they don’t exactly win over our hearts with their beauty or charm. They’re big, loud, sometimes belligerent and, to be honest, not too pleasing to the eye.
Turkeys form lasting, strong social bonds with their families and flock mates. They may travel in the wild in groups of 200 or more. ©Don DeBold, flickr
This Thanksgiving, with the help of some photographic images, I hope to change that perception of the turkey—at least, slightly—and present the bird in a more favorable light. To more fully acquaint you with Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey from which the domesticated version (the one most likely to be on your plate today) comes, I’ve scoured photo sources and prevailed on photographer friends to bring you some “glamour shots” of turkeys.
The photos here are guaranteed not to spoil your appetite (with, perhaps, the exception of the close-ups!). So, as you prepare your Thanksgiving table, please except my thanks, fellow travelers, wildlife fanatics and adventure seekers, for your curiosity about the world and your zeal for exploring new places. I wish you a happy, healthy, holiday season.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
By the early 20th century, overhunting and destruction of much of their favored woodland habitats had pushed wild turkeys almost to extinction; only about 30,000 remained. With the help of conservationists, the turkey has made a comeback: there are about seven million wild turkeys in the U.S. today.
Turkeys have great hearing—although they have no external ears—amazing sight and a wide field of vision. They see three times more clearly than 20/20. And while we humans can only see about 180 degrees, turkeys see 270 degrees because of the placement of their eyes on the sides of their heads. They also have better color vision than we do and can see ultraviolet light.
Despite their looks, turkeys are fast. They can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour (as fast as a charging elephant) and fly 55 to 60 miles per hour.
An adult wild turkey has approximately 5,500 feathers, including 18 tail feathers that form the distinct fan.
Male turkey feathers have areas of bronze, copper, green, purple, red and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray.
A wild turkey’s home territory often exceeds 1,000 acres, and they can visualize a map of it in precise detail. They have an incredible knack for remembering locations, even after a year of absence.
Wild turkeys sleep in trees away from predators. As evening comes on, they start flying onto low branches, then clumsily hop their way upward, branch by branch, until they reach a safe height. ©Bob Leggett, bobleggettphotography.com
The color of the bare skin on a turkey’s head and throat will change depending on the bird’s mood. When excited, a male turkey’s head turns blue; when ready to fight, it turns red.
A turkey attack is no joke. Male turkeys will attack anything that looks remotely like a threat, including their own reflections in car doors and windows. Those who find themselves in the presence of a belligerent turkey are urged to call the police. Until the authorities arrive, make yourself as big and imposing as you possibly can. ©Marc Neidig/NPS
A wild male turkey’s gobble can be heard up to one mile away. Female turkeys don’t gobble. To maximize the range of their calls, male turkeys often gobble from the treetops, announcing their presence to females and warning rivals to stay away. Turkeys of both genders, however, cackle, purr, whistle and yelp and are known to exhibit over 20 distinct vocalizations. ©Nick Varvel, flickr
The birds were named after the country. Turkish traders had been importing African guinea fowl to Europe for some time when North American explorers started shipping native turkeys back to the Old World. The American birds looked like African “Turkey cocks,” so Europeans called them “turkeys.” Eventually, the term came to describe the North American turkey exclusively. ©Lisa Hupp/USFWS