Getting to know our Thanksgiving Mascot: 10 Fun Facts about Turkeys

It’s November at last, which most likely means that many people are getting ready for their Thanksgiving festivities! Although Thanksgiving has evolved drastically over the years due to different traditions, there is one thing that probably comes to mind for the national holiday – Turkey!

Large Male Bird
A male turkey displaying his feathers.

So how exactly did the turkey become the mascot for Thanksgiving? Well, we owe it all to one woman, Sarah Joseph Hale. Born in 1788 in New Hampshire, Hale was an American writer (who happens to be the author of the nursey rhyme “Mary had a Little Lamb”) who was also a very powerful advocate for women’s education and the right to own land. She became obsessed with the idea of the perfect Thanksgiving and lobbied for it to become a national holiday, with turkey as its ideal symbol, in her famous novel “Northwood”.

Soon the roasted turkey became the ideological symbol, being placed at the head of tables and surrounded by the rich aromas of stuffing and gravy.

Did you like that fun fact? Well read on as I introduce you to 10 more fun and educational facts about the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Use these to strike up some very interesting conversations at your Thanksgiving dinner table this year.

1) Turkey was most likely absent from the Feast with the Pilgrims.

It’s simple. Thanks to historical records, we now know that the “First Thanksgiving” feast between the Wampanoag Tribe and the Plymouth Colony in 1621 most likely included deer and waterfowl, most likely duck and geese. Sarah Joseph Hale is to thank for the initial thought of the turkey being our Thanksgiving symbol much later, in the mid 1800’s.

2) Know your Turkey Terminology.

Yes, there is proper turkey terminology. A group of turkeys is called a flock, but they can also be called a rafter. A male turkey can be called a tom or a gobbler, while female turkeys are called hens. Juvenile turkeys are called poults, and if you want to get really technical, a yearling male turkey is called a jake while a yearling female is called a jenny.

Three young birds
3 young turkeys, also known as poults.

3) Turkeys can fly – and fly fast.

You heard that right. Wild turkeys can fly up to 60 miles per hour; this speed can help them successfully escape predators. Despite their size, they can fly long distances. Wild turkeys are among the five largest birds in the world who can fly. Other birds include the greater rhea (Rhea americana) and wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).

4) Turkeys can swim.

Although turkeys don’t swim often, they certainly can if needed. They will tuck their wings, spread their tail, and kick to move through the water.

5) The turkey was almost our national bird (or was it)?

There were rumors about Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, wanting the wild turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle. However, many sources over time have said this was simply not true.

“Bald eagle…is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself,” said Franklin in a letter to his daughter. Though Franklin clearly didn’t think much of the bald eagle, his bias simply got twisted into an untrue fact.

6) Turkeys have excellent vision

A turkey’s vision is very sharp. They are able to detect motion from miles away; they have vision three times greater than 20/20 and peripheral vision of 270 degrees. They are also able to see ultraviolet A (UVA) light, which helps them spot both predators and prey.

Turkey looking alert
A turkey looking alert.

7) Not all turkeys gobble.

Toms will “gobble” to communicate with hens. Hens don’t gobble, but make a “clicking” sound instead.

8) A turkey’s poop can tell you a lot.

Though you may not want to discuss the topic of turkey poop at the Thanksgiving table, know that it can certainly tell us an interesting fact about turkeys. Turkey droppings can inform us of their gender: if the droppings are shaped like a “J”, the turkey is a tom; if the droppings are spiral shaped, the turkey is a hen. Cool, right?

Turkey with red snood
A male turkey with a bright red snood on his forehead and wattle under his chin.

9) Turkey appendages can reveal their moods.

The appendage found on a turkey’s forehead is called a snood. The piece that hangs down from their chin is called a wattle. Both of these can actually change color and can tell us a turkey’s mood and physical health. For example, when a tom is trying to attract a hen, his snood and wattle will turn bright red. If a turkey is scared, these appendages will turn a bluish color. If a turkey is sick, the appendages will become very pale.

10) The turkey population was once in danger.

Although wild turkeys originally roamed much of the eastern U.S., with various subspecies found from Mexico to southeastern Canada, they were successfully introduced to Oregon in 1961. In the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had decreased to about 30,000 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Although they were relocated, their population only increased to about 1.5 million. Today, that number is up to 6 million and turkey populations continue to be doing extremely well, as Benton County can attest to. Here is a link from ODFW on Considerations for Coexisting with wild turkeys, with short and long term damage solutions

Now I know I said I would give you 10 fun facts about turkeys, but let me end this article with an extra fun one to take home.

11) The character “Big Bird” is a turkey.

Well, according to Sesame Street, Big Bird is actually a canary. However, Big Bird’s costume is made of all turkey feathers-4,000 to be exact. So really, this makes him a turkey, right?

I hope you enjoyed reading and learning some fun facts about turkeys. Be sure to use them at the Thanksgiving dinner table and show off your new knowledge of these wonderful birds!

Happy Thanksgiving!