11 Surprising Facts About Turkeys

These distinctive North American birds are more complex than many people realize.

A wild turkey standing in a wooded area in Canada

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The turkey is a large ground-dwelling bird native to the Americas that is easily identified by its rotund body, featherless head, and the protuberances that hang from its face. It's most famous as the provider of the staple dish at Thanksgiving, but classifying it as just a game bird would be a disservice. Wild turkeys are a sight to behold, with beautiful plumage, an impressive wingspan, and a surprisingly fast gait.

Here are 11 facts about the turkey that will make you appreciate this unique avian species. 

1. The Turkey Is Named After Turkey

Even though the turkey was first domesticated in Mexico, in English-speaking countries, it ended up being named after Turkey, the country. While there's no definitive answer to where the name came from, historians assume that the British associated the bird with the Middle East, because their first exposure to turkeys and similar large game birds was via merchants from the region. At the time, the British had the rather myopic habit of classifying anything exotic as "Turkish," from rugs to flour to birds. Interestingly enough, In Turkey the bird is called a "hindi," as a shorthand for India.

2. Wild and Domestic Turkeys Are the Same Species

The domestic bird destined for supermarket shelves is genetically the same as the wild turkey, and they share a scientific name — Meleagris gallopavo. Due to their living conditions, though, turkeys that live in the wild and those bred in captivity look markedly different. Most obviously, domestic turkeys have white feathers, whereas wild turkeys retain the darker feathers that offer camouflage for their woodland habitat. The wild birds are also considerably slimmer and more agile than their domestic counterparts, which rarely get exercise and are bred to maximize their weight. It's probably not that surprising to learn that domestic turkeys have significantly less genetic variation than wild turkeys, and even less than most other domesticated agricultural species and breeds like pigs and chickens.

3. But There Is Another Turkey Species Out There

A colorful blue and green turkey stands in a field of grass

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While the wild turkey is the only species found in the United States, there's a close cousin called the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) which resides only in the Yucatán Peninsula and small parts of Belize and Guatemala. It is more colorful, with iridescent green body feathers and a blue head. It's also much smaller, weighing between eight and 11 pounds, compared to the 11 to 24 pound range of the wild turkey. It has never been domesticated, though it is hunted for game, and has been listed as a near threatened species since 2009. As of August 2020, the number of individuals somewhere between 20,000-49,999; declines are due to heavy hunting for food and trade, large-scale clear-cutting and other habitat fragmentation, and invasive species.

4. They Can Count Benjamin Franklin as a Fan

In a letter written to his daughter in 1794, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the choice of bald eagle as the national bird of the United States. Franklin never actually lobbied in public for the turkey to replace the eagle, but he did have some choice words for each species in that letter. The eagle, he contended with the dry humor he often displayed, was a "bird of bad moral character" due to its nature as a scavenger, while the turkey was a courageous bird that would "not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."

5. They Can Be Aggressive, Especially During Mating Season

A male turkey ruffles his feathers in a meadow

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Male turkeys put forth a lot of effort during mating season. They will fan out their colorful tail feathers and perform elaborate dances to woo females. If another male gets too close, physical combat is not out of the question. In rare cases, overaggressive males have been known to attack humans, cars, and even their own reflections. This isn't very different from many other species, it's just that many of us might not think of "aggressive" when we think of turkeys.

6. Only Males Gobble

Birds of both sexes make plenty of noise, including clucks, purrs, and yelps, but the gobble is unique to the males. It's a loud, descending trill that lasts about one second, which the male employs in springtime to announce his presence to potential mates and competing males. This is why male turkeys are often called "gobblers" while females are called "hens." (You can listen to samples of every turkey noise at the National Turkey Federation website.)

7. They Can Be Distinguished by The Shape of Their Stool

There are plenty of ways to tell turkeys apart by sex. The males are bigger, colorful, and more aggressive, while the hens are primarily a uniform brown and docile in nature. But even if the bird is long gone, there's another way to spot the difference — by their droppings. Males will leave elongated, J-shaped droppings, while hens produce shorter, rounded droppings. Who knew?

8. They Are Faster Than You Think

A wild turkey flies through the air

Jim Cumming / Getty Images

While domestic turkeys are generally bred to be plump and lethargic, wild turkeys are surprisingly athletic. Whereas domestic turkeys are bred to have short legs, wild turkeys can reach speeds up to 20 miles per hour on land, faster than all but the most capable humans, and an astounding 59 miles per hour in the air. Their flying abilities are short and sweet, though. They rarely fly more than than a quarter-mile before they return to earth or the safety of a tree, where they spend most of their time.

9. They Roost in Trees

You're more likely to see wild turkeys on the ground, but turkeys also roost in trees, often selecting the largest and healthiest ones they can find before settling as high in the treetops as they can manage. Tree cover provides protection against predators, and turkeys dig their talons deep into the branches, giving them a secure foothold. If trees in an area are lost due to logging or development, turkeys will soon seek out new habitat as well.

10. They Have Snoods

A close up of the head and neck of a turkey

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Both male and female turkeys have snoods, the red droopy protuberances that cover their beaks. There's evidence that a well-developed snood is actually a sign of increased resistance to disease and bacteria. And that's not all. For males, the snood is an important part of the social hierarchy. The male snood actually fills with blood and becomes longer during mating season, and researchers have observed females choosing long-snooded males as mates time and time again.

11. They Once Faced Extinction

Wild turkeys were such a popular target of hunters that by one point, the population had shrunk to 200,000, or roughly two percent of its original size. They were gone from Connecticut by 1813, and were eradicated in Vermont in 1842. By the early 1930s there were no turkeys left in 18 states and were found in places where hunters had difficulty reaching hunters. The restoration of the wild turkey population took considerable time and resources, which was only accomplished after the end of the Great Depression and Second World War. Turkeys raised in captivity had a very low survival rate in the wild, so wild birds were transported thousands of miles and released, in a method called trap-and-transfer. It took a quarter of a century, but the wild turkey population has rebounded almost to its original size of 10 million.