Image of a black and white turkey with a blue head.
Aaron Wright
Nov. 27, 2019

5 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys

As Thanksgiving approaches and we all sit down to a big family dinner, most of us have one thing on our mind: the turkey. But how much do you actually know about turkeys? Test your knowledge and impress your friends this Thanksgiving with these five interesting facts you probably didn't know about turkeys.

1. There are only 2 living species of turkeys

While there are a lot of birds with "turkey" in the name, most of them are not really classified as turkeys. True turkeys are in the family Meleagris, which only has two extant species. One of them is Meleagris gallopavo, which is the domesticated turkey normally eaten for Thanksgiving dinner. They can also be found in the wild throughout North America. The second species is called Meleagris ocellata, commonly known as the ocellated turkey. They are found in the wild in forests of the Yucat√°n Peninsula.

There is a third species called Meleagris californica, but that species went extinct about 10,000 years ago. It was known as the California turkey and was found in Southern California. Archealogical evidence suggests it might have been hunted by early humans who came from Asia into North America, which might have contributed to the bird's extinction.

Other birds with "turkey" in the name are not real turkeys. For example, the turkey vulture is in the genus Cathartes, so it is classified as a vulture, not a turkey.

2. That thing that hangs from their beak is called a snood

Turkeys are famous for that long red thing that hangs from their neck. That body part is called a snood, and only male turkeys have them. Under normal cicumstances, the snood is small and relaxed. When the male begins his courtship display, the snood fills with blood to become bigger and turn red, indicating his readiness to mate.

Image of a turkey
The red part that hangs from the neck is called a snood.

A larger snood is correlated with higher levels of testosterone, and female turkeys prefer a mate with a larger snood. In addition, when facing off against other males, the male with the small snood will defer to the one with the larger snood. Males with a larger snood also exhibit lower rates of intestinal infection from a parasite called coccidia. This suggests that males with larger snoods possibly have more resistance to coccidia, which could be one reason why females prefer males with larger snoods.

But all is not better with a a bigger snood. When fighting other males, the two males will peck at each other, and the snood is often a prime target for attack. When the snood gets injured and starts bleeding, other turkeys will also peck at it, sometimes resulting in all out cannibalism by the other turkeys. Some farmers will cut off the snood when the turkey is just a chick to prevent this problem.

3. The name of the bird comes from Turkey the country

There are two different theories for why turkeys are called turkeys. Both of them suggest that the name "turkey" comes from the country of Turkey.

According to the first theory, the earliest European settlers to the Americas found the birds and incorrectly identified them as a type of bird called a guineafowl, which is a type of bird from Africa. At the time, guineafowl were already being imported to Europe by Turkish merchants, so they were nicknamed Turkey coqs. According to this theory, the settlers who saw the birds in America thought they were the same type of bird and began calling them "turkey fowl", which was later shortened to "turkey".

A second theory also has the birds being named after the country. In this theory, farmers in the Middle East had domesticated the birds and were shipping them to Europe. Because most of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time, the merchants became known as "Turkey merchants" and the birds became known as "turkeys".

In either case, the birds are either directly or indirectly named after the country.

4. Turkeys were first domesticated in Mexico

Turkeys are native to the Americas, and archealogical evidence suggests that they were first domesticated in Mexico by the Aztecs as long ago as 800 B.C. In fact, after dogs, turkeys were one of the first animals to be domesticated in the Americas. Archealogical findings suggest that the birds were first domesticated for use in rituals, such as for their feathers and to be used in religious sacrifices. Later they also began to be used for food and even today they are a popular ingredient in Mexican and Central American cooking.

Turkeys also appear in archealogical finds from early Native Americans in the modern day United States, and the best available evidence suggests that they were probably independently domesticated by the Native Americans. It appears that the Native Americans also used them for ritualistic purposes, and it is one of only a handful of animals domesticated by Native Americans.

5. Wild turkeys will aggressively attack humans

Wild turkeys have a pecking order to establish dominance within their social structure. If they live around humans long enough they will sometimes try to subjugate humans into that pecking order by becoming aggressive, threatening, and perhaps even attacking humans.

In some cities where this has been a problem, city leaders have recommended that humans take action to establish their own dominance. This can be done by making loud noises to scare them away, yelling at them, spraying them with a hose, or holding a dog on a leash and allowing them to bark at the birds.

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