Talking Turkey: What Do You Know About This Noble Bird?

Think outside the dinner table and learn about this amazing bird species.

Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey Rooster (Photo: Travel Images UIG/Getty Images).

Turkey is a popular choice for the dinner table, particualrly on special occasions such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. But this beautiful bird is more than just a meal. In fact, the noble turkey was Benjamin Franklin's first choice to represent the United States as our national bird - not the Bald Eagle. 

What do you really know about the wild turkey? Read on.

Let's get scientific.

Turkeys are in the same family (Phasianidae) as pheasants, partridges, francolins, junglefowl, and grouse.

 There are two types of turkey species, both within the genus Meleagris.  One species, Meleagris gallopavo - also known as the wild turkey or domestic turkey - is native to Mexico and the United States while Meleagris ocellata or the ocellated turkey is native to the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula. 

Both turkey species make a gobble sound that can be heard as far as a mile away. But only male turkeys display the ruffled feathers, fanlike tail, bare head, and bright beard commonly associated with these birds. Turkeys are among the largest birds in their ranges. Like most bird species, males are generally larger and more colorful than females.

Where do wild turkeys live?

Turkeys have been in the U.S. longer than most Americans. They are one of only two domestic birds that are native to the Americas (Muscovy ducks share that honor.) But by the beginning of the 20th century, wild turkey populations in the U.S. had been all but decimated thanks to hunting and habitat loss.

Relocation and reintroduction programs launched in the 1940s effectively saved wild turkeys from extinction. Today, flocks are found throughout the mainland U.S. as well as in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand. 

Wild vs. domestic turkeys

They are the same bird, but the wild turkey that is seen in the forest is much different from the domestic turkey that is served for Thanksgiving dinner.

Domestic turkeys are raised on farms and bred to weigh twice what a wild turkey does.

Do turkeys fly?

Most domestic turkeys weigh so much that they can't even fly. Wild turkeys, on the other hand, fly, but not often and not very well. They feed and spend much of their time on the ground, but also fly to their roosts in the trees at night. 

How many eggs does a wild turkey lay?

Male turkeys puff out their colorful feathers and make a gobble sound to attract mates. After a female chooses a male and mates, she prepares a nest on the ground - often under a bush or shrub - and lays as many as 18 tan and speckled eggs at a time. 

What do wild turkeys eat? 

Wild turkeys typically forage on forest floors, as well as in grasslands and swamps. They are omnivores and they feed on nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and salamanders.

Why are turkeys called turkeys?

Basically it's because they were misidentified by the Europeans when they first encountered them in the Americas. They settlers thought they were similar to a type of guineafowl found in Turkey (the country) so they named them Turkey Guineafowl and later, just Turkeys.

Turkey Talk. Do you know these turkey terms?

Caruncle. The brightly colored flap of skin in the throat area that turns bright red when the turkey is upset or trying to attract a mate.

Gizzard.  The part of a bird's stomach that contains tiny stones to help them grind up food for digestion.

Tom. A male turkey.

Hen. A female turkey.

Poult. A baby turkey (also called a chick.)

Snood. The flap of skin that hangs over the turkey's beak. Like the caruncle, this also turns  bright red when the turkey is stressed or during courtship.

Wattle. The flap of skin that hangs from a turkey's beak.