Wary turkeys spot me trying to photograph them. Image taken Somewhere in northern California.
Before America settles down for a nice Thanksgiving dinner, I thought it would be nice to appreciate the animal that will be providing most of us with lean, yummy nourishment.
Turkeys have been providing for humans long before the first Thanksgiving (which involved deer and not turkey anyway). Indians used turkey spurs as arrowheads, weaved feathers into clothing, made blankets from feathers and used bones for awls, spoons and beads. We know that for the Cherokee, only children hunted wild turkeys using darts blown through a hollow cane and they were expert turkey hunters by 10 years old. By contrast, the Apaches considered wild turkey a taboo food and never hunted it. We also know that the Pueblo Indians probably domesticated turkeys more than any other tribe, but they most likely didn’t eat them. Montezuma fed them to hawks, eagles and owls. Tribes in the north, where the turkeys were abundant, didn’t try to raise domesticated birds at all. Of course, what would be the point of that?
So, whether we’re talking about wild turkeys roaming North America or larger, fatter domesticated turkeys, these birds have been valuable for various reasons to homo sapiens for centuries. And they are pretty cool birds.
And so, in honor of the animal that has provided so much for us, here are 19 fascinating turkey facts for your Thanksgiving enjoyment:
1. Turkeys have an incredibly varied diet. There have been over 300 animal species and 350 plant species identified in the diet of turkeys.
2. Occasionally, domestic turkey eggs mature without fertilization! A hen that has never mated will produce eggs that in some cases hatch and produce fertile offspring, or sometimes the embryo will complete various stages of development, but never hatch. This is thought to indicate that they are a primitive bird group.
3. The earliest turkey fossils are from 11 million years ago.
4. Turkeys like to have a certain number of eggs in their nest. If eggs are removed from the nest as soon as they are laid, they will keep laying eggs.
5. Wild turkeys are sociable (except when breeding) and in the winter live in large flocks. In one subspecies (intermedia) up to 500 birds will flock together. These flocks are usually single sex and have a hierarchy system. Siblings team together when competing for dominance, so those with more siblings are usually higher up the dominance scale. But when mating time comes, only the most dominant bird will mate, unless they come across two females, and then the second dominant bird will get to mate. The other siblings will fight off intruders and when their more dominant brothers are done, they will participate in mock matings, mounting treading logs, dried cow manure or the ground.
6. They naked areas of their head can change colors between red, white and blue (a true American bird). It’s chromatophore changes that give it the various colors, which are used to convey messages.
7. Turkeys can fly, but do so only to roost or as a last resort to get away from danger. They prefer to run and can run from 15-18 mph. However, they are really strong fliers. They can fly up to 55 mph for up to 1 mile. Birds as young as 1 week old have been observed flying distances up to 50 ft. and at 6 weeks are capable of long flights.
8. Males and females have different plumage. When a male is castrated it still has normal plumage, but if you remove a female’s overies, she develops the plumage of a male.
9. Beards are special feathers that jut out from the middle of the breast and are usually found on males. They look like the tail of a horse. Here is a picture:
This turkey has a beard, which are the feathers jutting from its breast. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.
Although they are usually found on males, bearded hens are not rare. Those that have beards tend to have some male head adornments as well and tend to be more aggressive. But there is no reproductive difference between bearded and non-bearded females. Because the beard is the most obvious indicator of sex, in states where it is illegal to shoot hens but legal to shoot male turkeys, bearded females are often considered legal kills.
10. It is thought that turkeys might be able to predict bad weather, as it has been observed that right before a storm they are more active and feed intensely.
11. During the winter, turkeys can survive a week or more of severe weather without food.
12. Also in the winter, turkeys will follow deer and wild hogs which when digging up food from under the snow also dig up turkey food. The turkeys themselves can dig up to 1 foot deep in loose snow.
13. Golden eagles have been observed multiple times working together to catch turkeys. When the turkeys spot the eagles, they go running for cover under trees. One eagle will land and walk toward the turkeys, flushing them out into the open where the other golden eagle with make its attack.
14. Turkey chicks (called poults) can swim at only 1 or 2 days old, though not well.
15. Mom turkeys rear their young on their own. In some cases, when the mother dies the young are able to survive, but they never learn the appropriate fear of people and automobiles and so they usually aren’t seen for too much longer.
16. Like many birds that nest on the ground, turkeys will put on a “broken wing act” and flop around on the ground, imitating an injured bird to lure people or predators away from their nest and their young. If this doesn’t work, the female turkey will come back with her wings spread in a low crouch, which is her threat display. While she’s doing this, she’ll make a “putt” sound that alerts the chicks that there’s trouble. At this sound, the chicks will freeze-remain absolutely still and rely on their excellent camouflage to hide.
17. Turkeys defending their young have been observed killing rattlesnakes, water moccasins and kingsnakes and attacking crows and hawks-in mid-air! They have met with attacking hawks as high as 18 feet in the air and they have successfully fought them off.
18. Remember that hierarchy? Well, sometimes a dominant hen will steal poults from other hens. The young are more likely to survive under dominant hens because they are often more experienced.
19. Benjamin Franklin, writing to his daughter, stated that the wild turkey would make a better national symbol for the United States than the Bald Eagle because it was “a bird of courage.” Given these last few points, I’d have to agree-plus is has a red, white and blue head and face. Come on now!
And there you have it. Happy Thanksgiving!