Talkin’ Turkey

The modern domesticated turkey descends from the wild turkey; which didn’t originate from Turkey at all, but Mexico. The turkey is believed to have been a sacred bird in ancient Mexican cultures (the Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs referred to the turkey as the ‘Great Xolotl’, viewing them as ‘jewelled birds’). An ancient text called the Dresden Codex reveals that the Mayans cooked turkey tamales.

The male is noticeably larger than the female, and his feathers may display shades of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller, in shades of brown and grey. Domestic turkeys have been bred to have white feathers. Turkeys have about 5000 to 6000 feathers each. The area of bare skin on a turkey’s throat and head vary in color depending on its level of excitement and stress; e.g., when excited, a male turkey’s head turns blue, when ready to fight, it turns red.

Did Benjamin Franklin actually suggest the turkey be chosen as our national bird? This bit of trivia gets passed around a lot, but it’s mostly a misunderstanding of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784. It wasn’t so much that he thought the turkey should be the national bird, but that it would be a better choice than the bald eagle. The eagle, he contended, was a “bird of bad moral character” due to its nature as a scavenger. The turkey, Franklin noted, was a more suitable symbol for two reasons. The first was that he liked that it was a bird found only in the Americas, and the second was that he considered the turkey “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

Turkeys can be pretty aggressive, especially during mating season. Of course, the reason why a turkey wouldn’t think twice about attacking a red coat is because male turkeys work very hard to woo females. So attacking a much bigger animal would probably be quite impressive. Turkeys have been known to attack vehicles.

The turkey’s distinct gobble is only produced by males and is a way for them to attract females and establish territory among other males. A gobble can often be heard a mile away. Turkeys of both genders make plenty of other noises (over 20 distinct vocalisations), including clucks, purrs and yelps. You can listen to samples of these at the National Turkey Federation website. Individual turkeys have unique voices by which turkeys have been known to recognize each other.

Don’t be fooled by their size, turkeys are fast. On land or in the air, wild turkeys can travel very easily.  They can run up to 25 mph and fly (only for about 100 yards) in speeds up to 55 mph. Turkeys which we raise to eat are too heavy to fly, but can run short distances.

Flying comes in handy because wild turkeys roost in trees. You’re way more likely to see wild turkeys on the ground, but at night these birds head for the branches of trees to roost. The dig their talons deep into a branch, making it difficult for them to be shaken loose by the wind, even when asleep.

Top photo:  (Photo: Jeffrey B. Banke/Shutterstock)
Domestic turkeys, on the right (Photo: Bearok/Shutterstock)
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