Wild turkeys have made an incredible comeback in recent years, despite the belief that they had been completely removed from the D.C. region. The few that remained inhabited the wooded areas of Maryland and Virginia.
Thanks to the restoration efforts of game commissions and hunting groups, wild turkeys were re-introduced to their former ranges in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The initial (failed) attempts of re-introduction used farm birds. Fortunately, the technique of netting and capturing the wild stock was a success.
Today, the wild turkey is an increasingly common feature of the natural, or not so natural, landscape and are often found in the suburban areas of Arlington and Fairfax. In their natural environment, wild turkeys rely on their sharp vision to detect and avoid hungry predators, especially during inclement weather.
Wild turkeys are quite the illusive creatures. In their wake, turkeys leave tracks, feathers, “paint” droppings, and foraging scrapes in the dirt. Their most enticing trace is a gobble!
This time of year, turkeys live in single sex flocks. The males (toms or gobblers) live in one flock and the females (hens) live in another. The flocks sleep in trees, often evergreens, to avoid predators and take shelter from the elements. The area under tree roosts is often covered in white droppings called “paint” because turkeys defecate about every half hour.
- Names. A mature male turkey is called a “tom” or “gobbler,” a mature female is called a “hen,” a yearling male is a “Jake,” a yearling female is a “Jenny,” and a baby is called a “poult.” In the farm trade, a turkey under 16 weeks is a “fryer” and those 5-7 months old are called “roasters.” A group of turkeys is referred to as a flock, a “rafter,” or a “muster.”
- Calls. Only male turkeys “gobble.” Wild turkeys are said to have 28 recognizable communication calls, such as the “lost call,” the alarming “putt” call, and the “kee-kee run.”
- Features. Turkeys have distinctive heads that change color depending on the bird’s (especially tom’s) mood. The “snood” or “dewbill” is the fleshy growth on a turkey’s beak that can expand and change color.” “Caruncles” are the bumps along a tom’s mostly-bare head. The “dewlap” or “wattle” is the loose skin that hangs below the head.
- Travel. All species of turkeys are native to the Americas, however, they have done a bit of traveling. In 1511, the King of Spain asked his returning ships to bring back turkeys from the New World. Domestic turkeys soon became a common feature on European farms. About 200 years ago, turkeys walked around English markets in protective booties.
- Age. The world’s oldest domestic turkey was believed to be 12 years and 4 months old. The oldest wild turkey, found in Franklin County, Massachusetts, was believed to be 15 years old.
- World Record. On December 12, 1989 the Guinness Book of World Records recorded the heaviest domestic turkey at 86 pounds. The bird was sold at an auction for $4,400, which broke another record. Wild tom turkeys typically weigh around 18 pounds and wild hens weigh about 8 pounds. The heaviest wild turkey weighed 36 pounds.
- Weight. Due to their large size, domestic turkeys are often artificially inseminated when it comes time to breed. Their excessive weight leads to heart and respiratory issues. Even the turkeys that receive the “Presidential Pardon” at Thanksgiving rarely live more than 2-3 years after their ceremony.
- Feathers. A turkey will shed about 3,500 feathers, but will not lose its “beard,” which is comprised of long, hair-like feathers on a tom’s (sometimes hen’s) chest. The older the bird, the longer the protruding feathers.
- Nesting. On average, hens lay 10-12 eggs in a hidden nest on the ground. The eggs normally hatch in 28 days. Usually, poults can fly by the time they are 2 weeks old. Yes, wild turkeys can fly! Turkeys can fly over 40 miles per hour, but they tire quickly and prefer to run up to 35 miles per hour instead.
- Word Origin. The word “turkey” has an uncertain origin. Here are some theories: “Firkee,” the sound of a Native American word.“Tukki,” an Indian Tamil word meaning “trailing skirt.”“Tuka,” a word used in India to describe peacocks.“Putt,” a turkey’s alarm call that sounds like “Turk! Turk! Turk!”
- In Mexico, Aztec Emperor Montezuma received 365,000 turkeys per year as tribute from his subjects.
- Rumor has it that Ben Franklin called Thomas Jefferson a “Tom Turkey” when Franklin opposed the idea of declaring the turkey as our nation’s national bird.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supposedly released turkeys into their tobacco fields to help control “green worms” (caterpillars).
- In 1954, Thomas Swanson made the first TV dinner, which was roast turkey with stuffing, a sweet potato and peas. It was the 98 cent solution to Thanksgiving leftovers and aluminum airline trays.
- Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin’s first meal on the moon was turkey.
- June is officially National Turkey Lovers’ Month.
- White farm turkeys were bred to compensate for the unappealing look of turkeys with dark feather blemishes. Consumers wanted “cleaner” looking, unblemished meat on turkeys for sale.
- In bowling, when a player bowls 3 strikes in a row it’s often called a turkey.
- Although many Native American tribes ate turkey, the Tineh (Apache) refused to eat it and never used turkey feathers on weapons because they thought it was a cowardly and timid bird. Other Native American tribes used the fighting spurs on gobblers’ legs as arrowheads to hunt small game, made turkey calls from the bird’s wings, and used tail feathers as fletching to stabilize their arrows.
- A turkey has 157 bones.
- Henry VIII was the first English King to eat turkey. Edward VII initiated the tradition of eating turkey for Christmas.
- Canada’s Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October.
- North Carolina produces more turkeys than any other state.
- 90% of homes in the U.S. eat turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s about 45 million turkeys!
- Israel consumes more turkey per capita than any country in the world. That’s about 28 pounds per person!