Turkey, a large bird native to North and Central America. In the United States the turkey is a symbol of Thanksgiving Day and it is a custom to eat roast turkey on that day. Benjamin Franklin so admired the wild turkey that he suggested it be made the national bird.

It is believed that the name “turkey” was applied to the bird through a misunderstanding. The turkey was for a time confused with the guinea fowl, which was brought to Europe from Africa through Turkey. The one name came to be applied to both birds and eventually was given only to the American bird. Male turkeys are called gobblers, or toms; the females, hens; young turkeys, poults.

TurkeysTurkeys are large birds with dark plumage, bare heads, and red wattles.
Wild Turkeys

Wild turkeys were considered such good game by Indians and early settlers that they were killed off in many parts of their original habitat. Through legislation in many states of the United States, restricting the hunting of the turkey, the bird has been restored to much of its former range.

Wild turkeys live in small flocks. They are strong fliers, but only for short distances. At night, turkeys roost in trees. They feed on fruits, seeds, insects, crustaceans, and small reptiles, and are seldom found far from water. The male is larger than the female. There are only two species of wild turkeys—the common turkey and the ocellated turkey.

Common Turkey

This bird is found in forested areas of many parts of the United States and Mexico. The male weighs about 17 pounds (7.7 kg) and reaches a length of about 50 inches (1.3 m). The female is about 12 inches (30 cm) shorter. The plumage of the common turkey is dark with a green, bronze, and copper iridescent sheen. The head and neck, which have no feathers, are red and are covered with small growths; a larger growth, a piece of flesh called a wattle, hangs from the lower bill. The wattle is normally red and brightens during the courtship display. A tuft of feathers called the beard grows from the breast of the male.

The female lays from 8 to 15 eggs in a concealed spot on the ground. The eggs, which are incubated for 28 days, are whitish with brownish spots.

Ocellated Turkey

This turkey has ocelli—spots resembling eyes—on the end of its rounded tail feathers. The ocellated turkey is found on the Yucatán peninsula of Central America and in Belize and Guatemala. It is about the same size as the common turkey but differs in several ways. Its head and neck are bright blue and covered with red growths. It has a yellow growth between the eyes and is more copper in color. Also, the ocellated turkey does not have beardlike feathers on its breast.

Domestic Turkeys

Domestic turkeys are descended from a Mexican subspecies of the common turkey. Domestic turkeys are raised around the world, but only in the United States are they raised in large quantities. Turkey meat is somewhat similar to chicken and is highly nutritious. It is rich in proteins, minerals, and B-complex vitamins.

By selective breeding, many turkey varieties have been developed. Domestic turkeys may weigh 30 pounds (13.6 kg) or more, although many are much smaller. Some have dark plumage, others have many white feathers, and others are almost completely white. Except for color and size, domestic turkeys largely resemble the common turkey. Varieties raised in the United States include the Bronze, White Holland, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Black, and Beltsville Small White.

Domestic turkeys are usually allowed to roam freely on the farm. However, during breeding and laying seasons, the hens are usually housed in some sort of shelter. A domestic hen lays from 25 to 40 eggs during each breeding season, depending on age, weather conditions, and feeding. The eggs are usually hatched in incubators. Turkeys must be grown under sanitary conditions to prevent diseases, such as blackhead, and infestation with lice or mites.

Who Comes to Thanksgiving Dinner?

A roasted turkey is a central part of a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in many homes throughout the United States and Canada.

An adult wild turkey can weigh as much as 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms). Like the peacock, the male turkey—called a tom—can make a big, showy fan with its feathers. A female turkey is called a hen. Turkeys have no feathers at all on their head or neck. A long, loose piece of skin called a wattle covers the male’s lower jaw and neck.

Wild turkeys live in North America, mostly in or near wooded areas. These turkeys can both run and fly. Domestic turkeys—that is, turkeys raised on farms—are found in many parts of the world. Domestic turkeys are bred for their meat. They cannot fly because their wings cannot support their body weight.

Turkeys make up the family Meleagrididae. The common turkey is Meleagris gallopavo; the ocellated turkey, Agriocharis ocellata.