When we think of turkeys, we often conjure images of Thanksgiving feasts, autumnal decorations, and perhaps even the famous “turkey pardon” that takes place at the White House each year. However, there’s much more to these fascinating birds than holiday traditions.
Let’s dive into the world of turkeys and uncover some facts that might surprise you — including the answers to some rather curious questions.
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Do Turkeys Lay Eggs?
Indeed, turkeys do lay eggs. They’re not the staple in breakfast dishes like chicken eggs, likely due to their size, taste, and the fact that turkeys produce fewer eggs than chickens.
A hen — that’s a female turkey — will lay around 100 to 120 eggs per year, which is significantly less than a chicken’s average of 250 to 300 eggs.
Turkey eggs are larger and have speckled shells, making them quite beautiful in their own right.
How Long Do Turkeys Live?
In the wild, turkeys can live for about 3 to 5 years, though some have been known to reach the ripe old age of 10. Factors like predation and habitat impact their longevity.
On farms, the life of a turkey is much shorter, especially those bred for consumption, which are typically harvested between 14 and 22 weeks of age.
Do Turkeys Have Penises?
Now, here’s a topic that doesn’t come up at the Thanksgiving table. But it’s definitely Googled a lot during the holidays! Especially when it’s the first time someone comes across that neck in their store-bought turkey!
Unlike most birds, which reproduce by external fertilization, where the eggs are fertilized outside the body, turkeys have unique reproductive anatomy. Most male birds possess no external sex organs. Still, male turkeys (toms) are one of the few exceptions, including what is known as a cloacal protuberance that extends outward from their cloaca to transfer sperm during mating season.
Do Turkeys Fly?
Wild turkeys are indeed capable of flight, though they aren’t the long-distance migrants you might imagine. These large birds prefer to feed on the ground but roost in trees at night.
When threatened or moving to roost, wild turkeys can burst into a swift flight, reaching speeds up to 55 mph over short distances.
However, domesticated turkeys, especially the broad-breasted varieties raised for food, are usually too heavy to achieve liftoff.
Did Ben Franklin want the turkey to be the official United States bird?
The story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the official United States bird is one of those historical anecdotes that’s often repeated. Still, it’s more complicated than it’s typically presented.
Franklin never publicly advocated for the turkey to be the symbol of America. But in a letter to his daughter, he did express a partiality for the turkey over the bald eagle, Sarah Bache, dated January 26, 1784. This letter was written after the bald eagle had already been chosen as the nation’s symbol in 1782, with the adoption of the Great Seal of the United States.
In his letter, Franklin criticized the bald eagle’s behavior and character, calling it a “Bird of bad moral Character” because it steals food from other birds and is often chased away by smaller birds.
By contrast, he described the turkey as “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America,” citing its native status and vigor. Franklin argued that the turkey, though “vain and silly,” was a bird of courage that would not hesitate to attack a British guard if provoked, a quality that seemed to resonate with the spirit of the young United States.
However, it’s important to understand that Franklin’s letter was more of a personal commentary and not an official campaign or proposition to change the national symbol. It reflects his wit and love of irony rather than a serious lobbying effort for the turkey.
The bald eagle remains the emblem of the United States, symbolizing strength, long life, and majestic looks. Despite Franklin’s misgivings, it has become an enduring symbol of the nation’s freedom and spirit.
Obscure Facts About Turkeys
Now for the rare morsels of knowledge that you won’t find on your average turkey trivia card:
- 1. Turkeys Have Heartfelt Courtships: Male turkeys, or gobblers, create a unique spectacle when courting. They puff up their bodies, fan out their tail feathers, and strut around, making non-vocal throaty sounds while shaking their quills to attract a mate.
- 2. A Group Name Rundown: A group of turkeys is not just a “flock”— it’s called a “rafter.” However, when turkeys are young, they are called poults, and in that stage, a group of them can also be referred to as a “brood.”
- 3. Mood Ring Necks: Turkeys have a peculiar way of expressing their emotions. The wattles, snoods, and the skin on their necks, called the caruncle, can change color with their mood. When a turkey is scared or excited, those areas can go from pale to red, blue, or white. Also, the color of its snood can be an indicator of the health of the bird. A flattened, pale snood can mean that the turkey is sick.
- 4. Inspiration for New Technology: Not only does the turkey’s color changing skin help alert us to issues with them, it also inspired scientist to invent new “biosensor technology”. These color changing sensors can identify explosives, like TNT! Read more about it here.
- 5. Built-In Songbirds: Wild turkeys have a vocabulary of more than 20 distinct vocalizations. Among these is the “gobble,” which can be heard a mile away and is used primarily by males to announce to females that they have arrived. “Look at me, ladies!”
- 6. Ancient Prestige: Turkeys have been around for a long time, and they were actually domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico for their cultural and religious significance long before Europeans reached America.
- 7. Feathers Galore: A single turkey can have anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 feathers on its body. These feathers were once used to stabilize arrows and adorn ceremonial attire across different Native American tribes.
- 8. Presidential Pardon: The tradition of the U.S. President pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving began in 1989 with President George H.W. Bush, although there are reports of “unofficial pardons” happening as far back as the time of Abraham Lincoln.
Turkeys are creatures that have not only fascinated but also provided for humans for centuries. As we dig deeper into their lives and behaviors, we realize that these birds are more than just holiday icons — they are complex creatures with a unique place in our world’s ecosystem and history. Next time you spot a turkey or sit down for a Thanksgiving meal, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for these extraordinary birds.
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