Turkeys are raised in many countries for their meat. They are a mainstay for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts in the United States. However, there is a great deal about these birds that people may not know.
Origin and production of turkeys
Wild turkeys are American birds and it is from breeding wild turkeys that we have the turkeys commonly sold in stores around the world. This is the largest upland game bird in the US. Domesticated and raised turkeys are also tremendously numerous, numbering in the millions, worldwide.
Production of turkeys
Not surprisingly, the United States still leads the world in turkey production, producing about half of the 6,000 million tons produced yearly in the world. This doesn’t count the number of wild turkeys taken every year. More surprisingly is where most of the turkeys produced outside of the US come from, accounting for around 80% of the turkeys produced every year, as of 2010. The top five turkey producing countries, in order, are the US, Brazil, Germany, France, and Italy.
Israel leads the production of turkeys of all Asian countries, at right around 100 million tons.
Wild turkey range
Most of the wild turkeys found in the US are found in the east and southeast. In many areas, they were hunted out by around the 1940’s. In fact, the bird was rapidly on its way to extinction.
However, they have been reintroduced to most of those areas and also have been introduced to many new ones. The wild turkey population is now stable in both the old range and the new range. The new range includes many areas in the west, including Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, and the Dakotas, which all have large wild turkey populations. At least some wild turkeys can now be found in every US state except Alaska. (That includes Hawaii.)
Wild turkey description
Taken from a friend’s porch in Montana. The deer and the turkeys are all wild.
There can be some confusion about the difference between wild turkeys and domesticated ones. This is because commercial turkeys, bred to gain weight as fast as possible, are typically white. In contrast, wild turkeys generally are dark green or brown, with some iridescence and white barring. The tail feathers of the toms (males) are usually golden-brown.
The head has no feathers and ranges in color from red to deep blue, with deep red waddles. The color of the head can change color, depending on how excited the birds are. The coloration allows them to blend into the background very easily.
In the wild, a 25-pound turkey isn’t uncommon and occasional birds can be nearly double this weight. The wings, though, are seldom much more than 4 1/2 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Wild turkeys can be over four times heavier and nearly three times bigger than a pheasant (which were introduced to the US and are not native). Domestically produced turkeys tend to be larger than wild ones, but the wild birds are still quite large.
Wild turkey habits
Turkeys are stoutly built birds with strong legs and large, powerful feet. They are adept at running. However, despite the relatively short wings and great weight, wild turkeys can also fly. When they do, though, they seldom get more than 20 feet off the ground.
Turkeys actually roost in trees at night, though they nest and lay eggs on the ground. They are social birds that form flocks and when they are moving, they can be particularly noisy with their gobbling calls.
What surprises some people is that if absolutely necessary, wild turkeys can swim, though somewhat awkwardly.
Wild turkey diet
These birds eat primarily seeds, berries, buds, fruits, nuts, lizards, some vegetation, insects, and other invertebrates. The diet is common among upland game birds. Like chickens, they also take in small pebbles and grit, which are used in the gizzard to grind their food.
Wild turkey nesting
Wild turkey nests consist of a shallow, bowl-shaped depression scraped out on the ground and liked with dead leaves and other vegetation. They lay 3 to 18 eggs per clutch and have only one clutch per year. The exception to this is that if they lose a clutch early in the cycle, they will usually lay another.
The eggs are large; up to double the size of a typical chicken egg, and they are brown or tan with red or pale red spots. The incubation is for about a month and the chicks are developed when they hatch.
Although now depicted as part of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast, after a Native American tribe brought them turkeys, it is likely that the Pilgrims had been hunting turkeys before this event. Further, the main meat eaten in that feast was probably venison and not turkey.
The first known domestication of turkeys occurred in Mexico, which was within part of their original range.
Turkeys have a reputation for being a wily bird and it is well deserved. A turkey’s eyes are situated so they have a field of view of about 270 degrees. They also have vision that is several times better than a human’s. They also see in color.
Surprisingly, considering the weight, a turkey can run over 20 mph. The gobbles can also be heard for over a half mile.
There are five or six subspecies of wild turkeys, depending on the source.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving and plan on eating turkey, you now know more about the bird in advance of the holiday. Personally, turkey is a favorite main dish on Thanksgiving, though I prefer the flavor of wild turkey to the store-bought ones.