It’s Thanksgiving time again, which means Americans across the country will be firing up their ovens or deep fryers in preparation of a delicious turkey feast. In honor of the bird that has made this all possible though, here are some fun facts about the loveable, dopey turkey.
Which Turkey Came First?
While turkeys obviously evolved long before Turkey became a country, the creatures were actually named for the location despite the fact that they are native to the Americas. That’s because standard trade routes of the time meant goods from the Americas went through Turkey before being brought to Britain.
For the same reason, many other languages have named turkeys after other countries. For example, in French, turkey is “dinde,” meaning “from India.” In Cambodia, the birds are called “moan barang” which means “French chicken” –since the bird was introduced to the country by French colonists. And of course, Turks don’t call turkeys by that name as it would make no sense. Instead, turkey is “hindi” in Turkish, meaning “from India.”
Before They Were “Turkish,” They Were Mexican
Image Via Yathin S. Krishnappa [Wikipedia]
The first people to domesticate turkeys were the Aztecs of central Mexico. They started raising the birds at least 2,000 years ago, using their meat and eggs for protein and their feathers for decoration. The Aztecs associated turkeys with the trickster god Tezcatipoca partially because they thought the turkey acted so humorously.
When the Spanish came to the area, they brought back the birds and introduced them to Europe. Soon enough, a number of unique breeds were developed exclusively in Europe. By 1607, the turkey was seen as such a reliable food source that they were sent from England to Jamestown and settlers continued to bring turkeys with them as they travelled to the New World. Of course, they might not have bothered if they realized there was already a large subspecies of turkey living in the forests of Massachusetts. In fact, of all the myths about the first Thanksgiving, one thing is very certain –they did enjoy wild turkey.
Clearing Up the Rumors
Speaking of myths, there are a lot about turkeys that just aren’t true. The worst lie about them is the idea that they are so stupid that they will drown in a rainstorm because they will just stare up at the sky. There’s simply no truth to this story at all. While domestic turkeys might not be the smartest creatures around, they certainly aren’t dumb enough to drown by looking up at the falling rain.
Contrary to popular belief, they can also fly –or at least, they can at some point in their lives. Wild turkeys are able to fly throughout their entire lives, but domesticated turkeys can only fly when they are younger. Eventually, the domestic turkeys become too heavy to fly.
Perhaps the biggest myth about turkeys is that their meat contains high levels of tryptophan, which is what makes you so tired after Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. While they do have higher levels of the chemical than most meats, it still isn’t enough to make you tired. The real reason everyone gets tired after holiday meals is just because they eat so darn much. It makes sense when you think about it –after all, you don’t want to take a nap after eating a light turkey sandwich do you?
Finally, there is a long-standing myth that Benjamin Franklin believed the turkey should be named the national bird of the U.S. The truth is, he never said such a thing, but there is some basis for this story. Back in 1784, he wrote a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache criticizing the Society of Cincinnati. At one point in the letter, he mentioned that the Bald Eagle used on their crest was a bad choice and that it also looked like a turkey, which he believed, was a slightly better icon:
For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Domestic Versus Wild
Aside from one being able to fly its whole life and one losing that ability, there are a number of differences between wild turkeys and their domesticated counterparts. Wild turkey meat is almost all dark –even the breast meat and it tastes much stronger than domestic birds. The meat also changes flavor throughout the year as wild turkeys eat more insects during the late summer. In fact, while domestic turkeys are vegetarians that mostly survive on corn and soybean meal, wild turkeys are omnivores and enjoy foraging on acorns, nuts, berries, seeds, insects and, occasionally, they will even eat small reptiles and amphibians.
The most common breed of domestic turkey is the broad-breasted white, these are the ones you tend see on television every year when one lucky bird is issued a presidential pardon. These birds have been exclusively bred for eating to the point that they are too large to naturally breed, so they exist only thanks to artificial insemination. Their size actually causes them many health problems, including breathing and heart problems, so even those that are pardoned by the president still die shortly thereafter.
So just how big are broad-breasted whites compared to wild turkeys? Well, broad-breasted whites usually weight around 40 pounds with the heaviest turkey ever weighing in at 86 pounds. On the other hand, wild turkey hens usually weigh between 5 and 12 pounds while the toms usually are a bit bigger, weighing in at between 11 and 24 pounds. The largest wild turkey ever recorded was 37 pounds –still lighter than most commercial birds.
Sadly, while domestic turkeys are doing just fine these days, wild turkeys aren’t faring so well. By the early 40’s, there were practically no turkeys left in Canada and only a handful of small populations surviving in the U.S. Thanks to protection and breeding efforts from game officials, the numbers rebounded quite a bit. These days, the current wild turkey population is estimated at around 7 million individuals –still a far cry from what their numbers once were.
A Few More Fun Turkey Facts
- Ever wonder why you never see turkey eggs for sale at the store? Well, because they lay fewer eggs than other domestic birds, the eggs are particularly valuable. In fact, one turkey egg can cost $3.50.
- Male wild turkeys, like peacocks, are known for having vivid, iridescent feathers in shades of red, purple, green, copper and gold. If you see a male with dull colors, don’t even consider eating him –he probably has parasites!
- Toms have a sort of mood ring sitting on their head. While there heads are usually pinkish, they turn red when ready to fight and blue when sexually excited. When their excitement is at its peak, their heads will turn white.
- That weird dangly thing above their beak? It’s called a snood. As for the part under the beak, that’s a wattle. When a male is sexually displaying to the female, his snood will swell up to the point where he can barely see and he will begin sneezing.
- Their gobble can carry for up to a mile in the wild.
So whatever you’re doing this Thanksgiving, take a step back this holiday and thank our noble friend the turkey, which has served and fed mankind for over 2,000 years.