Topic of the day: Turkeys and Thanksgiving

The common turkey has been celebrated as symbol of harvest plentitude, had a holiday named after it, glutted on as holiday main course, farmed for 2000 years, migrated to Europe and back, hunted towards extinction in North America and bounced back, marketed as the healthiest meat to tuck between sliced bread, and provided many additions to the English language and slang expressions. Not so common after all, this much revered and much consumed species “Meleagris gallopavo.”


Turkey Day:
Thanksgiving, also known as “Turkey Day,” was first celebrated in 1621 in a three-day feast attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 native Americans. These Pilgrims were the first immigrants from England to the North American continent, and were welcomed initially and taught farming and hunting skills by the indigenous tribes in what later became Plymouth, Massachusetts (there was a massacre the following year, but who’s counting). Wild turkey was certainly included on the menu, along with venison and other meats. Roasted squash, but no pumpkin pies, as no wheat flour was available yet. Sweet potatoes and cranberries only came along many years later.


Author John Madson in a May 1990 Smithsonian article claimed that the native Americans who attended the first 1621 Thanksgiving feast brought turkeys to share, but viewed turkey as a lesser food fit mostly for children, while adults preferred other meats. How perspectives on food change over time! The early colonists also complained about the trash food lobster, which would wash up on beaches in piles up to two feet high. Lobster was so plentiful for the New England colonists that they plowed it into their fields as fertilizer and referred to it as “cockroaches of the sea.” Now it is a gourmet food!

Side fact:
Pilgrims at the time of the first 1621 harvest feast actually called themselves “Separatists,” which were different from the Puritans who colonized other parts of New England.   The term “Pilgrim” was not used to describe them until over a hundred years later.   “Thanksgiving” did not become an national U.S. holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official during the Civil War.


Turkeys were first domesticated in southern Mexico about 2000 years ago. One study says that the first use of turkeys by indigenous peoples was for the feathers, not the meat (Univ. of Leicester, B. Fothergill). After the Spanish invaded this region around 1520, they began bringing these birds back to sell in Europe. Turkey meat became popular on the continent as an alternative to the gamier field birds commonly eaten there.

Why are the birds called “Turkeys?” English traders had previously imported guinea fowl from Turkish traders. As the birds from the Americas looked vaguely like the familiar guinea fowl, the name “turkie” became permanently associated with it by English speakers as can be seen in writings as early as 1580.   Non-English speakers had other names for the bird. In Greece, for example, the birds imported from the Americas were called the equivalent in Greek of “French Chickens.”

By the time the British began colonizing New England in the 1600s, they were re-importing fatter domesticated turkeys from Europe in addition to eating the native wild turkeys.

Ben Franklin had proposed in one letter that the Wild Turkey was a better choice for the national bird of the fledgling U.S. nation, instead of the Bald Eagle, which he thought to be a lazy bird that stole fish caught by other birds. Probably he was simply being humorous in this letter to his daughter.
Remember, he had on another occasion suggested the rattlesnake as a “Don’t tread on me” symbol for the U.S. flag.







The turkey is closely related to pheasants, partridges, and quail, but has no close relation to chickens despite similar appearance apart from size after roasting.

Although related, turkeys and partridges are not interchangeable; the Christmas song about “Partridges in a pear tree” would not sound quite right if we substituted “Turkeys in a pear tree”…

Turkey Behavior:
Turkeys are very good at adapting. If the first thing they see after cracking out of the eggshell is a person, they will imprint on humans and become domesticated. If they are trapped and relocated to a distant area, they will simply make a new home there instead of following homing instincts to return to their original location as some birds will do (pigeons, for example).

Female turkeys are known as “Hens,” while older males are called “Toms” and juvenile males are “Jakes.” Baby turkeys are called “Poults,” which is also a source for the word “poultry.”
Male turkeys put on displays for females by puffing feathers, fanning tails, and strutting (OK, this behavior is not limited to turkeys). The display includes drumming of wings on the ground and spitting.   The gobbling noise is apparently to attract females from afar but not used when the female is close by.   Male turkeys will aggressively display not just for female turkeys, but for practically anything else that moves, ranging from people, goats, or tractors.

Odd Turkey Parts:
The “snood” is the fleshly growth that hangs down from the top of the beak, and is named for the net bag that some women use to bunch up long hair in. The snood is an important signal to females.   A longer snood indicates better parasite-resistance according to recent studies, possibly signaling a healthier potential mate.

The part below the beak is known as the “wattle” or “dewlap.”  (Who is responsible for these names!)

Watch-turkeys as guardians:
Turkeys are not passive and will defend against threats. Wingspan can be up to almost five feet. That can look big if it is chasing you!

Turkey Farming:
Turkeys can grow to 16 to 22 pounds on average, but highly fattened turkeys have weighed in as much as 50 pounds or more!   Some tables would break under the weight of the heaviest turkey in public records. Tyson was an 86-pound turkey, according to a newspaper reports in 1989 at London’s annual Heaviest Turkey competition. Here is Tyson the Great:


Turkey Farming:
The goal of modern farming for mass-market turkeys is to achieve maximum breast meat at minimum cost. This is why 70% of the total weight of a mass-market turkey can be in the breast! These turkeys – typically the White Broadbreasted breed – get many health problems and joint damage. Fat turkeys falling over from being too breast-heavy and unable to mate naturally are a by-product of the mass-market industrial farming methods.   As a healthier alternative, “Heritage Turkeys” have been growing in popularity. These include a variety of traditional breeds that are bred under kinder, more natural conditions, and are able to mate and reproduce naturally. The Heritage birds have only about 50% of their total weight in their breast meat, and certainly have a more graceful appearance, both living and as food:





Twitchy Facts:
Dark meat and white meat appear different because they are composed of two different types of muscle fiber. Dark meat is “slow twitch” fiber, used for prolonged, calmer exertion.   White meat is made of “fast twitch” fiber, optimized for short frantic bursts of exertion such as fleeing predators. Do you prefer slow food or fast food?

Does turkey bathroom behavior differ between boys and girls?
Allegedly, boy turkeys leave poops in a spiral shape, while girl turkeys leave poop in a “J” shape.

Modern myths about Turkeys:
One story describes turkeys as so stupid that they can drown when standing in the rain with beaks open.  No evidence supports this.

Common turkey slang:
“Talking turkey”:  Getting down to basics in a discussion or negotiation
“Quitting cold turkey”:   Abruptly quitting a drug addiction
“He’s a real turkey”: An uncool dude

Bad movies or plays are sometimes referred to as “turkeys”
One story of why bad productions are called “turkeys” is that weaker play productions were scheduled around the Thanksgiving holiday because greater numbers of non-critical theater-goers attended during this period so complaints would be minimized.

Silly facts about people dressed as turkeys:
The largest gathering of people dressed as a turkey is 661 in 2011, according to the Guiness Book of World Records (in Texas…who would have guessed?).