The Wild Turkey – genus Meleagris – is a native of North America. A second species, the Ocellated Turkey, is found in Central and South America. The turkey is the largest game bird in the United States and one of only two "new world" birds (the other being the Moscovy Duck) that has been domesticated. In the 1900s, the wild turkey was pushed to near extinction due to loss of habitat and over-hunting. Thanks to careful capture and release programs, the turkey has re-established itself across the United States, being found everywhere except Alaska.
Native Americans utilized all parts of the wild turkey. The meat was eaten; the feathers used for decoration as well as to fletch arrows, and the spurs—bony spikes found on the heels of males—were sometimes used as projectiles on arrows. Turkeys were domesticated in South America more than 2,000 years ago. European explorers brought the birds back with them from Mexico in the 1600s. Their domestication in Europe was so successful that English colonists brought them back to America when they came to settle in Massachusetts. American domestic stock originated with these birds as proven by their white tail tips, a characteristic specific to the Mexican Turkey.
Differences between domestic turkeys and wild turkeys are vast. Domestic turkeys have lost much of their ability to survive without the help of humans. Even their young, also known as poults, need to be taught how to feed themselves. Domestic turkeys generally way twice as much as wild turkeys and have been bred to not only grow big, but grow fast. Commercial birds have breasts that grow so large they have trouble standing upright. Their size and weight makes it impossible for them to fly and difficult for them to mate. Most turkey farmers breed their birds to have white feathers because white feathers leave no spots on the skin when plucked. A 15lb turkey is 70% white meat and 30% dark meat, much different from its wild cousin. Domestic turkeys are low in fat and high in protein, having more protein than either chicken or beef.
Wild turkeys live in hardwood forests and marshlands. Their diet is fairly flexible and includes over 600 types of fruit, nuts, grains, grasses, and insects. Wild turkeys are active during the day and fly into trees to roost at night. Although turkeys don't fly very far, they can reach speeds of 55 mph. They are also swift runners and can easily attain 18 mph. The feathers of male, or tom, turkeys are iridescent and display colors of green, copper, gold, and bronze, depending on the angle of the sun. They have long black feathers in the center of their breasts called beards, and their wingtip feathers are frequently tipped tan or white. Turkey heads are basically featherless. Male's have white foreheads, blue faces and red necks. The skin on their faces and necks will change color depending on their excitement. Females have gray faces and necks with some very small feathers. Female, or hen, turkeys are half the size of males and their plumage is a dull brown.
During mating season, toms will spread their tale feathers (much like peacocks) and drag their wingtips on the ground, strutting and gobbling to attract hens. Their gobbling can be heard up to a mile away. Toms will stake out a territory and fight with other males while they try to gather 4 – 6 hens for their harem. When mating season is over, female turkeys scratch a shallow hole in the leaf bed or grass to make a nest. They will lay approximately 12 eggs over the course of a few weeks. The eggs are highly vulnerable to raccoons, badgers, snakes and other predators. If the nest is destroyed early in the season, a hen will re-nest. The eggs' incubation period is a short 30 days, during which time the female stays on the ground with her clutch. When the chicks hatch they are able to follow their mother and will soon feed on their own.
Fun Turkey Facts
- Turkeys have been successfully introduced into Germany and New Zealand as game birds.
- Turkeys are members of the pheasant family.
- The President of the United States pardons a live turkey every Thanksgiving. The tradition started in 1947.
- Turkeys sport Caruncles, Snoods and Waddles. A Caruncle is reddish skin that grows from a turkey's head to the back of the upper neck. A Snood is a long strip of reddish skin that grows at the base of the beak and hangs down over the beak. A Waddle is the bright red skin that hangs from a turkey's neck.
- 90% of American homes eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
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