It’s Thanksgiving, but you all know what it really is–Turkey Day! But how well do you really know Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey from which the domesticated version, the one likely to be on your plate, was derived?
1 ) Turkeys are more than just big chickens–more than 45 million years of evolution separates the two species.
2 ) The wild turkey was hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s, when the population reached a low of around 30,000 birds. But restoration programs across North America have brought the numbers up to seven million today.
3 ) There are six subspecies of wild turkey, all native to North America. The pilgrims hunted and ate the eastern wild turkey, M. gallopavo silvestris, which today has a range that covers the eastern half of the United States and extends into Canada. These birds, sometimes called the forest turkey, are the most numerous of all the turkey subspecies, numbering more than five million.
4 ) The Aztecs domesticated another subspecies, M. gallapavo gallopavo, the south Mexican wild turkey, and the Spanish brought those turkeys to Europe. The pilgrims then brought several of these domestic turkeys back to North America.
5 ) Male turkeys are called “gobblers,” after the “gobble” call they make to announce themselves to females (which are called “hens”) and compete with other males. Other turkey sounds include “purrs,” “yelps” and “kee-kees.”
6 ) An adult gobbler weighs 16 to 22 pounds on average, has a beard of modified feathers on his breast that reaches seven inches or more long, and has sharp spurs on his legs for fighting. A hen is smaller, weighing around 8 to 12 pounds, and has no beard or spurs. Both genders have a snood (a dangly appendage on the face), wattle (the red dangly bit under the chin) and only a few feathers on the head.
7 ) Studies have shown that snood length is associated with male turkey health. In addition, a 1997 study in the Journal of Avian Biology found that female turkeys prefer males with long snoods and that snood length can also be used to predict the winner of a competition between two males.
8 ) A turkey’s gender can be determined from its droppings–males produce spiral-shaped poop and females’ poop is shaped like the letter J.
9 ) Turkeys can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and fly as fast as 55 miles per hour.
10 ) A group of related male turkeys will band together to court females, though only one member of the group gets to mate.
11 ) When a hen is ready to make little turkeys, she’ll lay about 10 to 12 eggs, one egg per day, over a period of about two weeks. The eggs will incubate for about 28 days before hatching.
12) Baby turkeys, called poults, eat berries, seeds and insects, while adults have a more varied diet that can include acorns and even small reptiles.
13 ) There is one other species of turkey, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which can be found on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
14 ) Benjamin Franklin never proposed the turkey as a symbol for America, but he did once praise it as being “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.
Originally posted November 23, 2011 on smithsonian.com