Nature Bulletin No. 619 November 26, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
TURKEYS : WILD AND DOMESTICATED
The story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and of the wild "Turkies"
which the Pilgrims hunted to provide meat for the feast is familiar to
every American. Today, although very few of us can claim that we had
ancestors on the Mayflower, a lot of us imagine that our Thanksgiving
bird is descended from those wild turkeys. This is not quite correct.
A century before, in Mexico, the early Spanish adventurers had found
Indians raising turkeys around their homes. The Aztec emperor,
Montezuma, kept them in his famous zoo, it is said, as food for the
other animals. It is not known how long those Mexican birds had been
tamed and bred but they are the true ancestors of our only domestic
animal with an origin in North America.
The Spaniards soon carried them back to Europe where, in several
countries, they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for
Christmas and other festive occasions. Within a century, a dozen
varieties -- copper-colored, dull-black, white, and buff-yellow, for
example -- were developed by selective breeding.
Today, turkey raising makes up a large part of the poultry industry in
this country and the Great American Bird is to be found in barnyards
around the world. Just as American families have become smaller, the
favorite present-day variety is small but with lots of white breast meat.
The Beltsville Small White developed by the U. S. Department of
Agriculture is the result of selective crossing of six domestic varieties
and wild turkey stock.
The wild turkeys of the United States and Mexico all belong to a single
species with five subspecies, distinguished by small differences in
plumage and body proportions, each native to a certain region --
woodlands of the eastern half of this country; swamps of southern
Florida, foothills of the Rockies; valley of the Rio Grande, and, the
highlands of Mexico, the one which gave rise to our tame turkeys.
A wild tom turkey in the full vigor of his gobblerhood is a sight to
behold. He stands three feet high and may weigh 40 pounds. The naked
skin of his head and neck is covered with red, white and blue wrinkles,
warts and wattles. On the forehead is a fleshy outgrowth dangling
jauntily, and on the breast is a long tassel of black feathers -- his
"beard". With burnished chestnut and black feathers, he is at his best in
spring when parading his charms before a harem of hens. He puffs
himself up, gets red in the face, spreads his banded tail into a great fan
and, with stiffened wing feathers rumbling as they scrape the ground,
struts back and forth.
The hen, more demurely colored than the tom, weighs about half as
much and lacks the beard. In spring she makes a nest on the ground --
usually hidden among fallen leaves by a log or brush pile There she lays
about a dozen brown speckled eggs which hatch after 28 days of
incubation. A day later she leads her chicks out to feed, keeping them
together with a throaty call that sounds like "glunk, glunk, glunk". At
first their diet is rich in protein -- mainly grasshoppers and other insects.
By late summer the young, now called poults, eat more and more
vegetable matter. Throughout the rest of the year, they and their parents
feed largely on acorns, nuts, weed seeds and grain.
Wild turkeys are great hikers and strong fliers. Wary and nervous, they
are constantly on the move in family flocks They range so widely that
several thousand acres of protected woodlands are required to satisfy
the needs of a single flock. With the cutting of the forests and
settlement of the land, followed by over-hunting, they were wiped out
of this part of the country a hundred years ago.
Franklin proposed that the turkey be chosen as our national bird.
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Update: June 2012