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
Turkeys are recognizable for their plumage, among many other traits.

Jim Cumming/Getty Images

Every Thanksgiving, many Americans gather around the table for casseroles, cranberries, and, of course, turkey. Given that it's a fixture in such a widely celebrated holiday, you'd think we'd know a lot about this bird. What we do know is clear: A turkey gobbles, it's definitely delicious, and kids can easily draw one by tracing their hand. But do we know if all turkeys gobble? What about how turkeys came to be called turkeys? And can these birds really fly? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

1. The Turkey Is Almost Certainly Named for Turkey

There are at least two potential theories for how the turkey got its name, and both involve the country Turkey and a nasty habit of the British people of that era. The first theory suggests that since the birds were originally sold by merchants by way of Constantinople (now Istanbul), the British referred to it as "Turkey coq" even though the bird is actually native to North America and Mexico. At the time, the British referred to just about anything that originated from the East as coming from Turkey, including Turkish rugs (Persian rugs), Turkey flour (Indian flour), and Turkey bags (carpet bags from Hungary).

The second theory is that Europeans already enjoyed eating guineafowl, a bird from Africa that looks sorta-kinda like a wild turkey. Guineafowl were also sold by Turkish merchants. So when Europeans began colonizing America and ran into this native wild turkey, they may have decided to use the name they thought best matched the bird's appearance.

Either way, this American bird got its name due to associations with other spots on the globe, and that trend continued with its naming in other countries. In Russia and Poland, the turkey's name translates to "bird of India," while Arabian countries call it "Indian rooster." So what do they call a turkey in Turkey then? "Hindi," as a shorthand for India.

2. Benjamin Franklin Didn't Actually Suggest the Turkey Be Crowned the National Bird of the U.S.

This bit of turkey-trivia is one that gets passed around a lot, but it's mostly a misunderstanding of a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter in 1784. The issue wasn't so much that Franklin thought the turkey should be the national bird, but just it would be a better choice than the bald eagle. The eagle, Franklin contended, was a "bird of bad moral character" due to its nature as a scavenger. The turkey, Franklin felt, was a more suitable symbol for the U.S. for two reasons. The first was that Franklin liked that it was a bird found only in the Americas, and Franklin considered the turkey "a bird of courage" 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."

3. Turkeys Can Be Pretty Aggressive, Especially During Mating Season

Of course, the reason why a turkey wouldn't think twice about attacking a red coat is because male turkeys work very hard to impress females. So attacking a much bigger animal — say, a human being — would probably woo the hen of their dreams. Turkeys have attacked cars, mail carriers, and even their own reflections.

4. Wild and Domestic Turkeys Are the Same Species

A white domestic turkey on a farm
Domestic turkeys have been bred to have white feathers. Bearok/Shutterstock

Despite having different names, domestic and wild turkeys are still the same species, Meleagris gallopavo. This is because, genetically speaking, the birds are basically the same. The similarities pretty much end there, however. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Native Americans had more or less domesticated the bird by the time Europeans showed up. One of the most obvious differences between the two turkeys today is that domestic turkeys have been bred to have white feathers, whereas wild turkeys need darker feathers for better camouflage in the wild.

5. Only Males Gobble

A turkey steps out from some high grass in a field
Turkeys make a variety of noises. Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

The turkey's distinct noise is only produced by males and is basically a way for the male to announce himself to potential mates while also, hopefully, scaring off other males. Birds of both sexes make plenty of other noises, including clucks, purrs, and yelps. You can listen to samples of these at the National Turkey Federation website.

6. If You Still Can't Tell the Female Turkeys From the Male Turkeys, Check Their Poop

You don't have to get up close and personal with turkeys to figure out their sex. Instead, just wait for the bird to do its business and then inspect the droppings. If the bird left behind straight, long J-shaped stool, it's a male. If the stool is a bit more of a spiral, it's a female.

7. Don't Let Their Size and Funny Shape Fool You: Wild Turkeys Are Fast

A wild turkey walks through the forest
Wild turkeys are agile runners and fliers. Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

On land or in the air, wild turkeys can keep pace with you just fine. These turkeys can reach speeds up to 25 mph (40 kph) on land and 55 mph (88 kph) in the air. They can only fly for about 100 yards (91 meters), however. And we're only talking wild turkeys here; domesticated turkeys — the ones we raise to eat — are too heavy to fly, but they can still run ... a little bit.

8. Flying Comes in Handy Because Wild Turkeys Roost in Trees

You're way more likely to see wild turkeys on the ground, but at night these birds head for the branches of trees to roost. They dig their talons deep into a branch, making it difficult for them to be shaken loose by the wind. It's a good survival technique.

9. Never Underestimate the Snood

Both male and female turkeys have snoods, the red droopy thing on the top of their beaks. For the females, the snood is just a bit of extra flesh, but for males, it's an important part of the hierarchy. A 1997 study found that longer snoods were more attractive to females and that males with shorter snoods were more likely to defer to males with longer snoods.

10. This 'Bird of Courage' Faced Extinction

A turkey with its feathers on display at sunset
It was a long road, but turkeys bounced back from the brink of extinction. Jeffrey B. Banke/Shutterstock

Wild turkeys were so popular that by the 1930s, it's estimated that only 30,000 individuals were living in the continental U.S. thanks to hunting and habitat destruction. The restoration of the wild turkey population took considerable time and resources funneled through the Turkey Federation to state wildlife agencies. Birds would be shipped potentially thousands of miles and released into forest habitats, a method called trap-and-transfer. It took a quarter of a century, but the wild turkey population was roughly 7 million as of 2013.

11. The History of Presidential Pardons for Turkeys Is a Little Muddled

Pardoning a turkey has become White House tradition, but the start of that tradition is surprisingly poorly documented. Abraham Lincoln may have been the first president to spare a turkey due to his son pleading that the bird intended for Christmas dinner had as much a right to live as any other creature. John F. Kennedy sent back the bird supplied by the National Turkey Federation in 1963, remarking, "We'll just let this one grow." Richard Nixon began sending the turkey to a petting farm at some point during his administration.

But it wasn't until George H.W. Bush's administration that the official pardoning ceremony started in 1989. Since then, presidents have pardoned one turkey from the dinner table each year, often with remarks about the spirit of Thanksgiving. (And, if you're Barack Obama pardoning turkeys, a whole lot of dad jokes.)