10 bites of turkey trivia for your holiday meal

wild turkey

After nearly being wiped out in North America, the wild turkey’s numbers have climbed, in part because of programs that have reintroduced the birds to places such as California.

Yathin S Krishnappa/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

1. There are two species of turkeys in North America: the wild turkey, Meleagris gallopovo, which lives throughout the United States and in parts of Mexico, and the ocellated turkey, M. ocellata, a smaller species that lives only on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

2. Before Europeans arrived in the New World, the wild turkey had been domesticated on two separate occasions and was probably valued first for its feathers, according to a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

3. The domestic turkeys people now eat are descended from a Mexican subspecies of M. gallopovo. The Spanish took the birds back home, where they were a big hit due to their size and taste. Europeans then created several breeds of domestic turkey. Later, English colonists brought the birds back to their home continent when they settled the American East Coast.

4. M. gallipovo gets to be pretty big for a bird — the males can grow up to 125 centimeters in length and weigh as much as 11 kilograms. But commercially reared domestic turkeys are real whoppers, with males weighing as much as 30 kilograms. They are so big that they can’t fly and can’t mate without crushing a female.

5. In the 1930s, there was concern that wild turkeys could become extinct. The continent had been home to millions of the birds before Europeans arrived, but by the 1920s, their numbers were down to only a couple hundred thousand, and many states had no turkeys. But reintroduction projects have been successful, and now there are around 7 million of the birds in the United States.

6. Not everyone is happy with the turkey’s comeback, though. Surburbanites unused to seeing the wild birds, for example, have been a bit unnerved by the appearance of flocks roaming their neighborhoods, according to the Washington Post. There have also been many reports that the birds can damage agricultural crops, “but estimates of damage by wild turkeys are often inflated,” researchers reported in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management in 2013.

7. The classic image of a turkey is a male. These are the ones with the big tails that fan out to attract the lady turkeys. But the two sexes differ in more than appearance and anatomy — their poop is even shaped differently. Female turkeys leave spiral-shaped droppings, while males’ are shaped like a “J.”

8. Groups of related males will court a female together, but only the lead guy gets to mate with her. Males will mate with multiple females, and females will mate with multiple males. Groups of females and young live together with males, which help to protect the groups and raise the chicks.

9. Because turkeys eat on the ground — they like nuts, seeds, berries and bugs — people often assume they can’t fly. But they can, and they roost in trees at night. They can also swim when necessary.

10. That turkeys are so stupid they’ll drown if they look up in the rain is just a myth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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