Every year at Thanksgiving, families and friends gather to share personal stories and perhaps reflect on the early history of the United States. But aside from deciding whether to ask for seconds, not much is said about the guest of honor at the holiday table: the turkey. That’s a shame, since that big, tasty bird has left a significant mark on history, science, language, and culture. So maybe on this Thanksgiving, take a moment to appreciate the turkey’s story with these remarkable facts and anecdotes gathered from across the centuries.
After an exhaustive study of wild turkeys in southeastern Texas, researchers were startled to discover that the community of birds is “characterized by an astonishing degree of social stratification, greater than had previously been seen in any society of vertebrates short of man.”
“The Social Order of Turkeys,” published in the June 1971 issue of Scientific American, described an avian dystopia where the permanent status of each individual is determined in the first years of its life. Young males, for instance, engage in a grueling two-hour battle. The victor gains alpha male status and the right to bully the vanquished turkey for as long as it lives. During breeding season, the dominant males gather together and literally strut their stuff in unison before the females, like a scene out of West Side Story. But despite the synchronous display, only the most dominant of the alpha male turkeys—six out of 170—are allowed to mate.
Turkeys Among the Maya
"For the Maya, turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings,” writes University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone. The reverence for the turkey among the ancient Maya is apparent in their stunning artistic depictions of the bird—with its characteristic drooping wattle—on vases and in codices. Historians had long thought that the Maya had domesticated the turkey sometime between A.D. 250 and 1000, but upon closer examination of turkey bones found in the ancient city of El Mirador, researchers at the University of Florida concluded that the Maya had domesticated the birds a thousand years earlier than previously estimated.
Watch Your Language
Considering that it was once deemed indecent for a woman to expose her ankles, we shouldn’t be surprised that prurient diners adopted anatomical euphemisms while serving turkey and other poultry.
In the mid-1800s, the term “drumstick” entered popular use to avoid the scandal of expressing desire for a bird’s lower leg. Likewise, according to culinary historian Mark Morton, “Prudery was also the impetus behind the adoption of the terms ‘white meat’ and ‘dark meat,’ which arose in the 1870s as euphemisms for the breast and legs.”
Look! Up in the sky! Wild turkeys can fly short distances at 40 to 50 miles an hour. (Domestic turkeys can’t, a factoid that was used to great comedic effect in the famous Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati.) Wild turkeys can also run 12 miles an hour and, completing the triathlon, they are actually adept swimmers. They move through the water by tucking their wings in close, spreading their tails, and kicking.
Granted, wild turkeys don’t swim often. As John James Audubon wrote in 1831, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.” (Actually, please don’t do that.)
Ben Franklin and the National Bird
Although the esteemed Founding Father once declared the wild turkey to be more virtuous than the bald eagle, there’s scant evidence that he preferred it as the national symbol of his new country.
Franklin’s feathers got ruffled when, in 1783, he learned that the Society of the Cincinnati—a group of officers under the command of George Washington—wanted to establish a hereditary order of merit, to be passed down from oldest son to oldest son. Franklin, a fifth-generation youngest son, expressed disdain for the officers and their aristocratic trappings, including their choice of the eagle as the emblem for their badge.
In a letter to his daughter, Sarah Bache, he wrote, “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly … For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
But did Franklin truly regret the eagle as the national symbol? As author Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely writes in the journal Gastronomica, “The sober historian must be skeptical. After all, eight years earlier, in 1776, he himself had served on the committee with Jefferson and Adams when the turkey was not chosen, and at other instances Franklin used the eagle rather than the turkey as an emblem. No other evidence in the vast Franklin archive mentions his support of the turkey as national bird.”
More likely Franklin, knowing that his lengthy letter would probably be published in U.S. newspapers, singled out the eagle as part of a larger cautionary tale against creating aristocratic institutions.
The tradition of sending a Thanksgiving turkey to the White House began during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, who was gifted with a 34-pound bird by Rhode Island Senator H.B. Anthony on behalf of turkey growers in his state.
However, Cornell University anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö writes that the formal custom of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey began in Alabama, “where the ceremony was first invented in the 1940s as a governor’s ritual,” before it was “exported to the capital.”
John F. Kennedy is sometimes credited with the first presidential pardon of a turkey when he declared, "Let's keep him going." According to the White House Historical Association, “The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped,"'Reprieve,' ‘keep him going,’ or ‘pardon’: It's all the same for the turkey, as long as he doesn't end up on the president's holiday table.”
Turkeys produce several different distinct sounds beyond their famous gobble (more of an ill-obble-obble-obble), which is uttered to attract females and establish territory. Other “words” in the turkey lexicon: a contact call that sounds like a yelp (keouk, keouk, keouk), an alarm (putt), and a cluck that’s used as an assembly note (kut).
A Wily Opponent
While domesticated turkeys are regarded as docile dullards, hunters across the centuries, including Theodore Roosevelt, have deemed the bird’s feral brethren to be cunning adversaries.
“The wild turkey is, in every way, the king of American game birds,” the future president wrote in 1893. “[It] really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”
Born to be Wild
Concerns that wild turkeys might become extinct peaked in the early 20th century, when the U.S. government released dire statistics on their declining numbers nationwide. “These are diminishing so fast that 1920 will see the finish of the turkey tribe unless the authorities take a hand,” declared an editorial in the December 19, 1912, issue of the Aberdeen Herald.
Some sought to save the bird through a raise-and-release program. “The experiment is being made in California, and also in New York State, where the Game Breeders’ association (an influential and wealthy organization of public spirited men), is already raising wild turkeys on a considerable scale on its breeding farms, some hundreds of the birds having been trapped in Virginia and the Carolinas for this purpose,” reported the El Paso Herald on November 25, 1911.
But the game-farm idea was a failure. "Turkeys that were raised in those situations did not have the opportunity for the hen to teach what predators would eat them,” explained James Earl Kennamer of the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, South Carolina. “It was like taking a kid out of New York City and putting him in the woods and saying, 'Go hunt.' They didn't know what to do."
The turning point came in 1951 when wildlife biologists in South Carolina devised a method of capturing wild turkeys with a net shot from a cannon—enabling the biologists to release them into habitats where wild turkeys were scarce or nonexistent. By 1973 the wild turkey population had rebounded to 1.5 million, and today it numbers nearly seven million.
This story was updated on November 21, 2018.