From being honored birds to decimated populations to an astonishing recovery, wild turkeys have a storied history as proud and bold as their personalities. A type of game bird, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), evolved over 11 million years ago and belonged to the scientific bird family Phasianidae. While wild turkeys only have one close relative, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) are distant cousins to other game birds, including pheasants, quail, grouse, and partridges.
Wild Turkeys in Early Civilizations
Wild turkeys, including the wild tom, with his bold tail fan, dangling snood, and bright wattles, were revered in ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The Aztecs honored the wild turkey, which they called 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 essential food source. Navajos in the American Southwest often penned wild turkeys and fattened 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; however, 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 European settlers first encountered the wildlife of the New World, wild turkeys caught their eye as similar to European game birds. Turkeys were eventually transported to Europe in 1519, where they were highly prized for their unique flavor. Because of the high demand for turkey meat, the birds were domesticated in Europe while they were being domesticated in North America. Pilgrims brought domesticated European turkeys back to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, though turkeys were not on the menu for the legendary first Thanksgiving. 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 the early days of the United States, 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 contender for the title, Ben Franklin later expressed his preference for the turkey over the bald eagle in a letter that he wrote to his daughter in 1784, saying, "For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America." Turkeys became commonplace on Thanksgiving tables around the turn of the 19th century but truly gained traction as the quintessential holiday protein after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Modern Wild Turkey History
During the late 1800s, the future of the wild turkey in North America was grim. Overhunting and deforestation took their toll on the birds' population, and the number of wild turkeys was dwindling. Conservation measures were put in place to protect the birds, including highly successful trapping and relocation programs to help return them to parts of their range where they had nearly vanished. In 1947, the first unofficial presidential pardons were granted to a symbolic pair of Thanksgiving turkeys, giving this much-maligned bird more respectability, further cementing the bird's symbolism for the Thanksgiving meal.
In 1973, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) was founded to conserve wild turkeys and preserve and restore suitable wild turkey habitats. Education is also a vital goal of the NWTF, and the organization leads many programs to benefit wild turkeys and promote the appreciation of these unique and fascinating birds.
Today, turkey hunting remains a popular sport. More than 7 million wild turkeys are roaming forested areas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Except for Alaska, every state in the U.S. has a stable enough population to allow regulated hunting of the birds. Depending on the local bird populations and game management plans, different states may offer different turkey hunting seasons in spring and fall.
Today, five distinct subspecies of wild turkey have evolved, all of which have slightly different plumages and ranges:
- Eastern wild turkey (M.g. silvestris): Lives in the eastern half of the United States; the name "silvestris" means "forest" turkey
- Florida wild turkey (M.g. osceola): Lives in the southern half of Florida; named for a Seminole chief
- Merriam's wild turkey (M.g. merriami): Lives in the mountain regions of the western U.S.; named in honor of the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriam
- Rio Grande wild turkey (M.g. intermedia): Lives in the south-central plains states and northeastern Mexico; first described in 1879 by George B. Sennett
- Gould's (M.g. mexicana): Lives in parts of Southern Arizona and New Mexico and Northwestern Mexico; the largest of the subspecies; threatened
Wild Turkey Bird Traits
Wild turkey traits are unique, and some characteristics set them apart from their domesticated counterparts.
- Unlike domesticated turkeys, wild turkeys are agile, fast fliers. Domestic turkeys can't fly.
- Wild turkeys have excellent eyesight, but their vision is poor at night. They roost in trees to keep them safe from ground predators.
- Wild turkeys gobble and make other vocalizations like domesticated turkeys; however, wild turkeys are more mindful of predators and are quieter, and only make sounds when necessary (domestic turkeys are more chatty).
- Wild turkeys are omnivorous ground and shrub foragers, mainly eating seeds, nuts, berries, grasses, insects, small amphibians, and snakes.
- Males are polygamous, mating with as many hens as possible, usually in March and April. The male "strutting" courtship display includes puffing out feathers, spreading their tails, and dragging their wings. Their heads can change colors from red, white, or blue; a solid white neck and head mean the turkey is in its most excited state.