by Stan Tekiela
November 14, 2003
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
It’s that time of year when the entire country turns it attention to a large
and interesting bird—the American Turkey.
The Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a true Native American, and is the oldest domesticated
bird in the New World. When the Spaniards arrived in the New World the Indians of South America traded turkeys
for horses. The Spaniards had never seen turkeys before and the Indians had never seen horses.
Turkeys quickly became “international” early in the 1500's when the King of Spain ordered that every
Spanish ship returning from the New World to bring back five male and five female turkeys. Within 50 years,
turkeys were considered common throughout Europe.
Guinea fowl were common in Europe at that time and were called “turkey hens” or meleagris. The name
meleagris is Greek and means “speckled” and refers to the speckled marks on the Guinea Fowl feathers.
Turkeys also share these speckled marks so they were also called turkeys. Soon after, the people of Europe
thought the turkey looked so strange that the word "turkey" became synonymous with anything that looked
The turkey is nothing, if not strange looking. The head of a male turkey is devoid of any feathers and
is brightly colored with several appendages not found on other birds. Just above its bill is a small warty
projection called a snood. Under the bill is a long thin flap of skin called the dewlap.
In the middle of the chest is a long thin structure called a beard. Looking a bit like hair, the beard
is made up of long straight feathers. The beard can be a gauge in loosely determining the age of a bird.
Yearling gobblers don’t have a beard. One-year-old birds have beards less than 5 inches long. Full grown
males called Gobblers, have beards over 8 inches long and are likely to be three or more years old.
I think everyone knows the story of Ben Franklin nominating the turkey to be our national symbol. In
the end, the bald eagle won out. Although, old Ben might have been on to something. Consider this, the wild
turkey is a strong flyer that can achieve up to 55 miles per hour and can out-run just about any animal
through thick brush. Its eyesight is three times better than our own, and turkeys have remarkable hearing.
A male can pinpoint the origin of another gobbling turkey up to a half a mile away. When a turkey is flushed
from cover it has the ability to fly straight up and then fly away.
Until next time...
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