The History of Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkey Hen With Poult

Jerry Hiam / Flickr / Used With Permission

From being honored birds to decimated populations to an astonishing recovery, wild turkeys have a wild history as proud and bold as their personalities. A type of game bird, the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) evolved more than 11 million years ago and belongs to the scientific bird family Phasianidae. While 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.

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 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; 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 in 1519 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 at the same time 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 did later express 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 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 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 with a mission that included 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, more than 7 million wild turkeys are 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 and game management plans.

Turkey Species

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 but also is threatened