You eat something enough, and you might think you’d know a little something about it. But despite gobbling down a couple thousand turkey sandwiches over the course of my lifetime (I did the math) and even once attending a National Wild Turkey Federation convention (thanks to my uncle, a longtime member who does a mean turkey call), I have to admit I’m not all that well acquainted with the noble but somewhat goofy bird that takes center stage at America’s biggest holiday feast.
This revelation occurred to me as I was reading the most recent cover story from our friends at Audubon magazine, in which T. Edward Nickens chronicles the decades-long decline, then resurgence, and now decline again of the bird we love to baste. So after gorging on research, here, in easy-to-digest format, are the top bits of turkey trivia I’ll be serving up to relatives over dinner.
1. The Pilgrims probably didn’t eat turkey at the first Thanksgiving.
At least, there’s no solid evidence that our favorite holiday bird was carved up at that first harvest meal in Plymouth Colony, though it could have been. Governor Edward Winslow wrote that he had “sent foure men on fowling” in anticipation of the big sit-down, but “fowling” at that time generally referred to waterfowl. So goose and duck, and maybe even swan, were more likely on the menu (along with cod, eel, deer, now-endangered American chestnuts, extinct-for-now passenger pigeons, and perhaps even a bald eagle—seriously).
2. Benjamin Franklin didn’t really want to make the turkey our national bird—but he sure did have it in for bald eagles.
Just like George Washington and his cherry tree, Franklin’s famed push for the turkey to adorn our national seal is largely mythical. But as Slate recounts, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, Franklin did defend turkeys while dissing the bird that got top billing, calling the eagle “a Bird of bad moral Character” that “does not get his Living honestly.” He slandered them as lazy cowards that steal fish from the talons of better birds. (He probably thought that eagle on the Pilgrims' table had it coming.) “The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird,” Ben wrote. “He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” Vain and silly but courageous when called upon? Ain’t that America.
3. John James Audubon was also a turkey man.
The famed naturalist was “so fond of wild turkeys,” notes the magazine named after him, he used a painting of one as the first image in his landmark Birds of America and included it on his personal seal. (Seals were obviously a much bigger thing back in the day.) He was also one of the first to raise the alarm about their decline, noting in the early 19th century that the birds were “becoming less numerous in every portion of the United States”—in part because Americans were already eating too many to support the population, and not just at the holidays.
4. So why do we eat turkeys on Thanksgiving?
They’re the right size and the right price to do the job. In the 1700s, when Americans started celebrating Thanksgiving in an informal fashion, poultry was considered the proper choice for a holiday feast (a tradition imported from Europe), but a single chicken was too small to feed a large family, and their eggs were too valuable. Beef wasn’t widely available, geese were expensive, and pork was too downscale. So turkeys fit the bill—they were widely available, socially acceptable, and big enough (meaning about 10 pounds at the time) to feed a family. By the time Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving official, the turkey already had its central place in the new national holiday.
5. Turkeys were wiped out across half the country by the early 20th century.
Victims of their own popularity, the gobblers first vanished from the New England states in the 1800s, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, then were gone from 18 of their native 39 states by 1920. State wildlife agencies and the turkey federation spent much of the 20th century on successful restoration efforts. And yet...
6. Turkeys are again on the decline.
Audubon reports that across the South, once a turkey stronghold, numbers are dropping from peaks of the 1980s and '90s. Habitat loss could be partly to blame—Southern forests are heavily timbered—as could the expansion of predators like the coyote and new neighbors like fire ants and the feral hog (not to mention humans, who made the Sun Belt the fastest-growing part of the country for much of the past few decades). But no one’s sure.
7. A turkey chick is called a “poult.”
Poult, poultry...makes sense. Male turkeys are called “toms.” And the turkey’s name itself comes from via a bit of confusion: Though turkeys are native to North America, when they were first imported to Europe, they were confused with guineafowl, which were transported to Europe from Africa by way of—you guessed it—Turkey.
8. A flock of turkeys is called a “rafter.”
Per James Lipton’s historical research, anyway, though that term is apparently not as widely accepted as some of the other code names for a group of birds, like a brood of hens, charm of finches, or gaggle of geese. (OK, now it just seems like I’m padding the list with nomenclature. But hey, if you can't get enough fun animal names, try this.)
9. Modern turkeys have an obesity problem.
In 2013, the Atlantic reports, the average weight of an American-produced turkey crossed 30 pounds for the first time. Their average weight in 1965, according to the USDA: 18 pounds. We owe much of this turkey supersizing to artificial insemination. (See more disturbing facts about how factory farming has transformed turkeys in charts from our friends at Mother Jones.)
10. Sesame Street’s Big Bird is not a turkey (no matter what Oscar the Grouch says), but he is made of them.
Big Bird’s costume is composed of approximately 4,000 white turkey tail feathers dyed bright yellow.
This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.