Wild Turkey History

The Honored Past of a Popular Bird

Wild turkey
Photo © Jim Cumming/Getty Images

Wild turkeys are instantly recognizable game birds, and while they are often seen as gullible and comical, they have a noble history in their native North America as well as throughout the world.

Wild Turkey Evolution

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) evolved more than 11 million years ago. Turkeys are a type of game bird and belong to the scientific family Phasianidae. While our familiar wild turkeys only have one close relative - the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) - they are distant cousins to other game birds, including pheasants, quail, grouse and partridges.

Today, five distinct subspecies of wild turkey have evolved, all of which have slightly different plumages and ranges.

Ancient Civilizations and Wild Turkeys

The wild tom, with his bold tail fan and bright wattles, is a proud, distinctive bird, and turkeys were revered in ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The Aztecs honored the wild turkey – huexolotlin – with religious festivals twice a year, and believed turkeys to be a bird manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, a trickster god. Because of that spiritual connection, the feathers of turkeys were frequently used to adorn necklaces, headdresses, jewelry and clothing. The Mayans revered and honored turkeys in similar ways.

Even while turkeys were honored by ancient civilizations, they were also recognized as an important food source. Navajos in the American Southwest often penned wild turkeys and would fatten the birds for food, but true domestication of wild turkeys first began in Mexico.

In the eastern United States, turkeys were also a great source of food, but because they were more abundant in forested areas they were not generally penned or domesticated, but instead were regularly hunted.

Wild Turkeys and European Colonization

When Christopher Columbus first encountered the wildlife of the New World, wild turkeys caught his eye as similar to European game birds.

Turkeys were eventually transported to Europe in 1519, and because they tasted different than more familiar birds, they were highly prized for their unique flavor. Because of the high demand for turkey meat, the birds were domesticated in Europe at the same time they were being domesticated in North America. In fact, pilgrims brought domesticated European turkeys back to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620. Those colonial birds were allowed to breed with native wild turkeys, helping increase populations further to provide this vital food source for settlers and pioneers.

In 1776, Benjamin Franklin was part of a committee appointed to choose appropriate political symbols, among them an official national bird. While the wild turkey was never a serious contender for the title, Ben Franklin did express his preference for the turkey over the bald eagle. He considered the proud, adaptable turkey a more noble, respectable and admirable bird than the bald eagle, which often steals food from other predators or feasts on carrion. Of course, the bald eagle was eventually appointed the United States national bird.

Modern Wild Turkey History

During the late 1800s, the future of the wild turkey in North America was grim.

Overhunting and deforestation were taking their toll on the birds' population, and numbers of wild turkeys were dwindling. Conservation measures were put in place to protect the birds, including highly successful trapping and relocation programs to help return the birds to parts of their range where they had been extirpated. In 1947, the first unofficial presidential pardons were granted to a symbolic pair of Thanksgiving turkeys, giving this much maligned bird more respectability. This also brought turkeys to the focal point of United States symbolism as well as November dinner tables.

In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) was founded with a mission including the conservation of wild turkeys and the preservation and restoration of suitable wild turkey habitat. Education is also a strong goal of the NWTF, and the organization leads many programs aimed to benefit wild turkeys and promote the appreciation of these unique and fascinating birds.

Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys roaming forested areas of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Every state in the U.S. except Alaska has a stable enough population to allow regulated hunting of the birds, and turkey hunting is a popular sport. Different states may offer different turkey hunting seasons in spring and fall, depending on the local bird populations.

From being honored birds to decimated populations to an astonishing recovery, wild turkeys have a wild history as proud and bold as they themselves.