Chances are the basted beauty of roasted turkey will soon be gracing a table near you. Symbolic of family traditions, cheer, and celebration, this is the bird of American holiday meals. After all, over 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. on Thanksgiving! Alas, our familiarity with this impressive animal rarely ventures beyond the innocuous meat on dinner plate or deli sandwich. It turns out the behemoth bird that lands in many of our homes this time of year is but an obese shadow of the plucky creatures you may see crossing roads or picking through fields. How much do you really know about wild turkeys?
As a species, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) belongs to the order of heavy-bodied, ground-feeding birds called Galliformes, which includes chickens, grouse, partridges, pheasants and quail. Turkeys are endemic to North America, and did not appear in Europe until brought over by Spaniards in the 16th century. This means, for all you medieval fair-goers out there, that those giant turkey legs touted as “traditional medieval fare” aren’t all that historically accurate. Introduced to Britain along the same Spanish trade ships that came from the Eastern Mediterranean, “turkey” the bird became associated with “Turkey” the country, and the name stuck. With its large size and delectable meat, the turkey very quickly became popular in Europe, where it was selectively bred for size and flavor. Interestingly, some of these domesticated breeds were then re-introduced to North America with the advent of European settlers to the New World, though by then they looked different than their wild cousins.
Wild turkeys have had a long, interesting history in the U.S. Their natural range covers the entire eastern half of our country. Turkeys’ preferred habitat is a mature, mesophytic forest that has adjacent openings and edges for foraging, which our eastern states once held in abundance. However, arriving Europeans greatly altered the land. Clearing miles upon miles of forest in the name of settlement and safety, the pioneers worked up a huge appetite- and it was wild turkey that was on the menu. Habitat loss and over-hunting resulted in the near extinction of the wild turkey, with all-time low numbers estimated around 30,000 birds in North America by the early 19th century. In Ohio, the last bird was shot in 1904, and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that conservation efforts brought turkeys back to our state.
Wild turkey populations were in rapid decline by the time John James Audubon illustrated this picture in the early 19th century
Today, wild turkey populations are again at healthy numbers, thanks to trap-and-transport efforts of countless wildlife biologists, naturalists, and volunteers. In fact, the wild turkey is now more widespread than ever, as its range has been artificially extended to 49 of our states and is represented by five distinct sub-species. Our local variety, the Eastern Wild Turkey, is the most common, with over five million birds estimated throughout its range.
Thanks to conservation efforts, you can see flocks of wild turkeys on your journeys to Cleveland Metroparks
Wild turkeys are beautiful birds, with iridescent metallic feathers in bronze, green, copper, and gold. Both males and females have featherless heads and wattles, but males also have a snood which is a fleshy flap of skin hanging over the male’s beak, and a “beard” of coarse, modified feathers growing directly from the front of the chest. Like a mood ring, the male’s entire head, wattle, and snood can blush a variety of shades of red, blue, and pink. Depending on their age, males are called jakes, toms, or gobblers. You can estimate a male’s age by looking at the size of the spurs on its leg; young jakes have a little nub above their foot, while mature toms, or gobblers, have an impressively sharp spike. Males are more colorful than females, and of course are known for their spectacular, fan-shaped tail feather displays. Like with chickens, a female turkey is called a hen. Hens are over all more drab in color, and lack the snood, spurs, beard, and fan-like tail of the males. Look for hens with their young- called poults- in the spring. Wild turkeys have distinct social structures, and will establish a pecking-order by means of complex vocal challenges and fights. Their best known call is their gobble, which a tom uses to communicate with his harem of hens. And, yes, turkeys can fly. While they don’t travel by air more than a quarter of a mile at a time, they are fast: turkeys have been clocked in flight at over 50 miles per hour!
Check out the snood on that gobbler!
hens are smaller and more drab in color than toms
A lovely sight in late spring: a hen and her poults
Don't be fooled by their heavy size: a wild turkey can fly faster than you think!
While wild turkey hunting remains a popular sport in Ohio and elsewhere, 99% of the turkeys eaten in the U.S. come from the commercially produced breed called the broad-breasted white. As affluence and privilege burgeoned following World War II, many of the long-established heritage breed turkeys were suddenly found to produce inadequate breast meat for a proper celebration. They also have dark pin feathers that disturb those who prefer to forget that their meat is of animal origin. As such, a new breed was divined. Selectively bred for ample meat and pure whiteness, the broad-breasted white is so top heavy that it can barely walk and cannot reproduce on its own, meaning that every turkey you’ve ever eaten has been the product of artificial insemination (yep- that’s someone’s job!).
Meet your dinner: 99% of our Thanksgiving turkeys are raised in factory farms
Interestingly, the ample bosoms of these birds have oft been fetishized by food publications and advertisements in a way usually reserved for those magazines in the back of the convenience store, with air-brushed images glorifying impossible size and succulence. Ah, such is human nature. But is the gain of all that extra flesh worth it? Almost all commercially available turkeys have been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics indicative of large-scale factory farming. The result is bland and mushy meat, which processors then inject with oils and saline to improve flavor. Um, Gross. Thankfully, a renaissance of heritage turkey farmers have responded to the absurd homogeneity of modern-day turkey-culture, preserving diversity and flavor by offering a cornucopia of ethically farmed breeds such as the Narragansett, blue slate and bourbon red.
Sure, the commercially farmed turkey on the left has a lot more meat than the heritage breed bird on the right, but I'll take history, flavor, and local farms over hormones, antibiotics, and mass production any day!
Wild turkeys are my favorite native bird. Intelligent, beautiful, and with such a rich and unique history, they are definitely worth seeking out as you hike the forests of Cleveland Metroparks. Warmest wishes for your holiday gobbles!