A Much More Respectable Bird

The turkey has become a symbol of Thanksgiving dinner – a way for families and friends to come together to give thanks for what they have over a communal meal. In this way, the humble wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has grown to represent something much larger than itself. Turkeys have become enshrined in pop-culture (how many movies feature an over-cooked, burnt-to-a-crisp bird for dinner?), and the U.S. president declares a yearly “pardon” to one lucky turkey every November. Even Benjamin Franklin, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, proclaimed that the turkey was superior to the bald eagle. Franklin wrote that “… the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage…”.

As Franklin mentioned, turkeys are native to America. Archaeologists believe that Native Americans have been domesticating turkeys for more than 1500 years. Interestingly, this also means that the turkey is the only vertebrate domesticated in America; horses, dogs, cows, chickens, and other domestic animals were all introduced from other places. This domestication in turn lead to a turkey trade between tribes in the eastern United States and peoples in the American Southwest and Mexico, spreading the birds across the continent. Scientists have tracked this wild turkey spread by examining the bones of turkeys uncovered by archaeologists. The researchers looks at the ratios of different biochemical markers, including the isotope ratios in strontium that is found in body tissues. Different areas of the world have different values of strontium, allowing scientists to track where the birds were raised.

Quick turkey facts:
– Turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and fly up to 55 miles per hour.
– A turkey’s gender can be determined from it’s droppings: male turkeys make sprial-shaped poop while females are shaped like the letter “J”
– Turkeys were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900’s, although restoration programs have brought the numbers up to over seven million wild turkeys today.
– Turkey may or may not make you sleepy; Turkey does contain a decent amount of the amino acid tryptophan, which can be converted into niacin in our bodies and make us tired. However, MANY foods contain tryptophan. So, if you’re tired on Thanksgiving it’s just as likely due to the long day and huge meal!
– Turkey’s throats can change color to indicate their mood. A blue or white throat indicates that the bird is relaxed, while a red color indicates that it feels threatened or angry.

Turkeys are not the only interesting part of Thanksgiving. We’ve amassed quite the collection of blog posts about thanksgiving over the years. Click here to learn about the Science of the Thanksgiving meal, or here to learn about Food Science and Thanksgiving, or here for a collection of wonderful articles on the holiday. Until next time, have a happy and safe holiday!

A male wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting at Deer Island Open Space Preserve near Novato, Marin County, California

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