birdnote q&a: in celebration of the turkey

Wild turkey by Joanne KamoLIVING WHERE WILD TURKEYS, once in decline, have been extra-successfully repopulated, I get to regularly enjoy these comical big birds. Their crazy, descending gobble-gobble-gobble, and the occasional startling, loud beating of wings if a flock is spooked from their roost up in the trees are both part of the background music here. And as dumpy as Meleagris gallopavo looks—more dirigible than F-35 screeching off the flight deck, and positively prehistoric—they are in fact sprinters in the bird world, able to fly very short distances at very high speed (like up to 55 miles per hour). In time for Turkey Day, I asked Ellen Blackstone of the public-radio show BirdNote to serve up some other turkey tidbits—facts and lore about this plus-sized American bird.

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our ongoing series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily–and if you want to give thanks to nonprofit BirdNote for all their wonderful avian “aha’s,” you can do so at this link.

Female Wild Turkey takes flight © Tom Grey

the turkey q&a with ellen blackstone

Q. Why isn’t the wild turkey our national bird?

A. In 1784, that wise old Ben Franklin groused to his daughter, after the fact, about the choice of the bald eagle as our national symbol:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. …Too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“…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, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Despite Franklin’s sentiments, of course, the bald eagle reigns to this day.

Male Wild Turkey displaying © Tom GreyQ. Where did the wild turkey originate?

A. Farmyard turkeys were domesticated from a species called the wild turkey, originally native to the eastern and southwestern states and parts of Mexico. It is likely that the Mayans of southern Mexico had already domesticated turkeys as long as 2,000 years ago! Early Spanish explorers in the New World sailed back to the Old with domestic turkeys from Mexico. Soon turkeys were gobbling over much of the world, no doubt acting as security alarms in those ancient farmyards, much as they do today.

Q. Why is it called a turkey? Any association with the country?

A. As for how the turkey got its name? It’s complicated.  When the bird we today call the “turkey” arrived in England in the 1500s, people may have gotten it mixed up with another big bird, the guineafowl.

Since guineafowl were thought to come from Turkey, perhaps both it and the New World bird came to bear the name “turkey”. (As it turns out, guineafowl are actually from Africa, so neither bird really deserved the name.)

Or maybe it had to do with birds that were raised in the eastern Mediterranean and traded across Europe via “Turkey merchants.”

Early European colonists to America’s Atlantic seaboard actually brought domestic turkeys with them, completing the circle back to the New World. And there they were: the centerpiece for the first Thanksgiving, like this.

In the early 1800s, John James Audubon wrote: “The great size and beauty of the Wild Turkey, its value as a delicate and highly prized article of food… render it one of the most interesting of the birds indigenous to the United States of America.” He even described how wild turkeys, which walk more than they fly, cross a river. Be sure to listen! (And yes, they can swim if they need to.)

Wild turkey, photo by Rodney CampbellQ. The debate may have started at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and it rages today: giblets or no giblets? And what exactly are giblets?

A. This BirdNote audio link explains. Giblets refer to the parts that often come stuffed inside a packaged turkey—including the gizzard, kidneys, heart, liver, and sometimes the neck.

So what’s a gizzard? A bird’s stomach is divided into two parts. The first part is a lot like the human stomach. It employs digestive juices to break down foods. The second part of a bird’s stomach is called the gizzard. Birds that eat hard foods such as seeds have a gizzard with tough, thick, muscular walls.

Such birds swallow grit–sand or gravel–that travels to the gizzard. Here, in concert with the gizzard muscles, grit enables birds to grind up hard foods, much like we do with our molars.

Waterfowl ingest grit they find on the bottoms of lakes. Birds such as turkeys, quail, doves, and finches–all of which eat lots of seeds–are often seen pecking the ground for grit. And those especially chewy bits in the giblets gravy? Those are pieces of the turkey’s gizzard. So, pass the gravy–with or without giblets–and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Male turkeys display for females, by Rodney CampbellQ. Any extra bits to share about the turkey?

A. Fortunately, when you talk turkey, there are always leftovers!

  • Learn more about turkey-calling (listen at this link). Can you tell who’s who and which is which?
  • “Turkey in the Straw” is an old familiar tune. Where’d it come from? Find out.

how to get birdnote

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:

(Photos used with permission: Turkey closeup at top of page, copyright Joanne Kamo; individual male displaying, and female taking flight, copyright Tom Grey; group of males displaying for females, and colorful closeup of turkey head, copyright Rodney Campbell.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Susan says:

    One or two wild turkeys will fly into my crab apple tree and shake the branches so the others on the ground can gobble up the little apples. Very funny to watch.

  2. Peg Lotvin says:

    Just be careful in turkey country. One flew into my windshield in New Hampshire. The turkey kept on flying into the woods and we had a spoiled holiday weekend trying to replace a windshield. I still love to see turkeys…..on the ground.

  3. Irena says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    I’d like to thank you for every post you write and this way share with us your knowledge, passion and experience.

  4. Judy says:

    Happy belated Thanksgiving, Margaret! There are wild turkeys that wonder in my back yard… usually about 8 to 10 of them. I was surprised to see, the other day, when one flew up on a branch. They are really big! One of them was meandering down a sidewalk, early one morning. It was gobbling, or making some call to find the others. All of a sudden, the other turkeys showed up and joined the lone one. It’s really cool to see them! Great post… thank you!

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