In honor of American Thanksgiving on Thursday, a complicated day with a complicated history and a complicated set of silverware, today let’s talk about the natural history of the big bird, the star of the show, the one and only – turkey!
Let’s start from the top and work our way down to the weird. The bird that you will be sinking your pearly whites into come Thursday evening is a domesticated version of one of the six subspecies of the wild turkey. The wild turkey is native to North America, not Turkey, and had been domesticated by some groups of Native Americans throughout Northern and Central America for years and years before European contact. Eventually, humans brought the bird back to Europe and then Charles Dickens and Tiny Tim happened.
Wild turkeys are not as sweet as their goofy waddles and wattles might suggest: these lean, mean, fat eating machines will eat anything they can get their beaks on, from hard nuts like acorns to insects to small reptiles like lizards and snakes. Bloodthirsty doesn’t even begin to describe them.
But prey aren’t the only ones that have to fear the turkey. While turkeys’ largest predatory threat comes from humans, large carnivores like bobcats and cougars and huge birds like owls can also pose a serious threat to these butterballs. They do not take this threat lying down, choosing to sometimes fight their prey using tooth and claw. Well, to be more accurate, they tend to use beak and spurs on their feet, but it has a similar (bitey) effect. See what I mean when I called them “bloodthirsty”?
Of course life isn’t just fighting and eating – there is also a lot of social interaction, and when it comes to the turkeys, social interaction involves a lot of mating or attempts at mating. Wild turkeys often form mating groups called “leks” where several males congregate to display for ladies. Domesticated turkeys, if they have the chance, display, too. They strut around, puff out their chests, and yes, even literally shake their tail feathers. I hear that the lady-birds find all of this highly alluring, though I tend to prefer a guy who can make me laugh.
Wild turkeys are finding their habitats shrinking and several subspecies are reaching critically low population sizes. Other subspecies are flourishing, waddling around various forests and towns like they own the place, getting hunted for sport by hunting enthusiasts. The domesticated turkey, of course, does not have these worries – it starts on a farm and ends on your table.