Curious Nature: A tribute to the turkey
Walking Mountains Science Center
It’s that time of the year again when the leaves have all fallen and snow is filling the mountains. Families gather, and everyone sits down for a lovely thanksgiving feast. The most important part of any Thanksgiving is, of course, the turkey. We all know it tastes delicious but how much do you know about the history and biology of this Thanksgiving symbol?
Thanksgiving was not recognized as a national holiday until President Lincoln declared it a holiday in 1863. It has been an American tradition ever since. The turkey was originally chosen as the main course for Thanksgiving because it was a lot larger than any other bird and could easily feed more family members.
There are six subspecies of turkey in the world with very slight differences among them. The two main types of turkey chosen for the Thanksgiving meal are domestic turkey and wild turkey. While some people prefer to hunt their own turkey for Thanksgiving, most buy domestically raised birds.
The wild turkeys we see today were domesticated over 2,000 years ago from Native Americans. In our region, turkeys were domesticated by the Anasazi and used for their meat, feathers, and bones. They were kept in pens and primarily fed corn. The turkeys that were the largest and produced the most meat were bred to keep that genetic line going.
The most common type of domestic turkey is the broad-breasted white. This is also the type of turkey that will receive a presidential pardon. This turkey’s meat is usually much lighter than that of its wild counterpart. The meat inside a wild turkey, including the breast, is usually dark meat.
Wild turkeys primarily inhabit hardwood and conifer forests. They prefer habitat with some openings and possibly seasonal marshes. Unlike the domesticated versions, wild turkeys can actually fly quite well. They do not fly very high or long, however, and will usually stay close to the ground, flying up to a quarter-mile at a time.
Mating usually occurs around March and April. The males will spread their tail feathers, drag their wings on the ground, and gobble when they find a female. Their famous gobble is used by males to let females know they are around. Turkeys like to feed on acorns and nuts of different assortments. They will also eat small reptiles, amphibians, or insects as well.
In addition to humans, turkeys are preyed upon by a variety of different animals. Many types of snakes, rodents, and weasels love to steal and eat a turkey’s eggs, as well as their hatchlings. Adult turkeys are usually preyed upon by coyotes, raptors, foxes, and even alligators. Adult males can be particularly aggressive when they need to fight against predators, including people.
The natural history of turkeys and the story of their domestication is a uniquely American one intertwined with our culture. So, as you sit down with your family this week, take a minute to think about the story of your thanksgiving meal, and the turkey on your plate. Happy Thanksgiving!
Austin Averett is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center working on his Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Science at Florida Institute of Technology.
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