Gobble, Gobble

What do you know about turkeys? Learn more from Dr. Jean Woods, Director of Collections and Curator of Birds at DMNH.

At Thanksgiving, many people’s thoughts turn to turkeys. But how much do you really know about turkeys, except that they make a fine Thanksgiving dinner? For example, did you know there are only two species of turkeys in the world, and that they are both native to North America? The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), the species familiar to most people, is found over much of Canada, the U.S. and northern Mexico. A second species, the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is much smaller and is found only on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

This turkey taxidermy is located within the Museum’s collections.

Native Americans in the southwestern United States and Mexico had domesticated the Wild Turkey as long as 1,500 years ago. In 1519, the Cortez expedition to Mexico took some of these domesticated turkeys back to Spain. From there, they spread to farms throughout Europe and may have actually been brought back to North American by early colonists. Native Americans and European settlers hunted turkeys frequently. Turkeys, along with other birds such as geese and ducks, were part of the 1621 harvest thanksgiving feast celebrated by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampagnoag Native People. The white turkeys seen on modern farms are the domesticated version of the original Wild Turkey.

Wild Turkeys have a complex social structure. In the spring, small groups of females are typically found with one or more males. During this time, males can be heard gobbling. Males also put on a dramatic strutting display where they fan their tail and puff out their feathers. After mating, a female leaves the group to build a nest and lays an average of 12 eggs. Males play no part in raising the young. The eggs hatch after about 28 days and the chicks leave the nest within a day. Mother and chicks stay together throughout the summer as the young learn what to eat and how to avoid predators. Young chicks switch to the adult diet of seeds, nuts, and fruits. As fall approaches, turkeys gather again in flocks that remain together until spring.

Turkeys are generally found in areas with a mix of open field and mature woodland. This mix of habitats provides abundant sources of food, mature trees where turkeys can roost at night, and many places to hide from predators.

Turkeys were once common in Delaware, but were eliminated by over-hunting by the early 19th century. In the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, turkeys were released at sites in Kent and Sussex counties and have since grown in number and spread to nearby areas. Birds have also moved into the state from nearby populations in Maryland and Pennsylvania. More recently, turkeys were released at nearby Brandywine Creek State Park and the Winterthur estate. Perhaps one day soon we can all enjoy the site of Wild Turkeys in our woods as did the first settlers at Plymouth Colony.

To learn more about the history of turkey at Thanksgiving, visit www.plimoth.org, a site run by the Living History Museum of 17th Century Plymouth.

This article originally appeared in the October-December 2003 issue of Muse News.