Turkey Facts

Biology Facts About November's Favorite Bird

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The turkey is a very popular bird, especially around the holiday season. Before sitting down to enjoy that holiday meal, pay tribute to this splendid bird by discovering some of these fascinating turkey facts.

Wild vs Domesticated Turkeys

The wild turkey is the only type of poultry native to North America and is the ancestor of the domesticated turkey. Although wild and domesticated turkeys are related, there are some differences between the two. While wild turkeys are capable of flight, domesticated turkeys cannot fly. Wild turkeys typically have dark colored feathers, while domesticated turkeys are commonly bred to have white feathers. Domesticated turkeys are also bred to have large breast muscles. The big breast muscles on these turkeys make mating too difficult, so they must be artificially inseminated. Domesticated turkeys are a good, low-fat source of protein. They have become an increasingly popular choice of poultry because of their taste and good nutritional value.

Turkey Names

What do you call a turkey? The scientific name for the wild and modern domesticated turkey is Meleagris gallopavo. The common names used for the number or type of turkey changes depending on the age or sex of the animal. For example, male turkeys are called toms, female turkeys are called hens, young males are called jakes, baby turkeys are called poults, and a group of turkeys is called a flock.

Turkey Biology

Turkeys have some curious features that stand out upon first glance. One of the first things people notice about turkeys are the red, fleshy stretches of skin and bulbous growths located around the head and neck region. These structures are the:

  • Caruncles: These are fleshy bumps on the head and neck of both male and female turkeys. Sexually mature males may have large carnuncles with bright colors which are attractive to females.
  • Snood: Hanging over a turkey's beak is a long flap of flesh called the snood. During courtship, the snood enlarges and becomes red as it fills with blood in the male.
  • Wattle: These are flaps of red skin that hang from the chin. Males with large wattles are more attractive to females.

Another prominent and noticeable feature of the turkey is its plumage. Voluminous feathers cover the breast, wings, back, body and tail of the bird. Wild turkeys can have over 5,000 feathers. During courtship, males will puff up their feathers in a display to attract females. Turkeys also have what is called a beard located in the chest area. Upon sight, the beard appears to be hair, but is actually a mass of thin feathers. Beards are most commonly seen in males but may occur much less commonly in females. Male turkeys also have sharp, spike-like projections on their legs called spurs. Spurs are used for protection and defense of territory from other males. Wild turkeys can run as speed of 25 miles per hour and fly at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

Turkey Senses

Vision: A turkey's eyes are located on opposite sides of its head. The position of the eyes allows the animal to see two objects at once, but limits its depth perception. Turkeys have a wide field of vision and by moving their neck, they can gain a 360-degree field of view.

Hearing: Turkeys do not have external ear structures such as tissue flaps or canals to assist with hearing. They have small holes in their head located behind the eyes. Turkeys have a keen sense of hearing and can pinpoint sounds from as far as a mile away.

Touch: Turkeys are highly sensitive to touch in areas such as the beak and feet. This sensitivity is useful for obtaining and maneuvering food.

Smell and Taste: Turkeys do not have a highly developed sense of smell. The region of the brain that controls olfaction is relatively small. Their sense of taste is believed to be underdeveloped as well. They have fewer taste buds than mammals and can detect salt, sweet, acid, and bitter tastes.

Turkey Facts and Stats

According to the National Turkey Federation, 95 percent of Americans surveyed eat turkey during Thanksgiving. They also estimate that about 45 million turkeys are consumed each Thanksgiving holiday. This translates to about 675 million pounds of turkey. With that being said, one would think that November would be National Turkey Lovers' Month. However, it is the month of June that is actually dedicated to turkey lovers. Turkeys range is size from small fryers (5-10 pounds) to larger turkeys weighing over 40 pounds. Large holiday birds typically mean a fair amount of leftovers. According to the Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council, the top five most popular ways to serve turkey leftovers are: sandwiches, soups or stews, salads, casseroles, and stir-fry.

Dickson, James G. The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1992. Print.
“Minnesota Turkey.” Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, http://minnesotaturkey.com/turkeys/.
“Turkey Facts & Stats.” Nebraska Department of Agriculture, http://www.nda.nebraska.gov/promotion/poultry_egg/turkey_stats.html.
“Turkey History & Trivia” National Turkey Federation, http://www.eatturkey.com/why-turkey/history.

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Bailey, Regina. "Turkey Facts." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/turkey-facts-373349. Bailey, Regina. (2021, September 8). Turkey Facts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/turkey-facts-373349 Bailey, Regina. "Turkey Facts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/turkey-facts-373349 (accessed June 2, 2023).