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It's Turkey Time

Five facts about these big birds

A wild turkey in Rye, New York. Photo by Brett Weinstein via Flickr.


First of all, the farmed, domesticated turkey you buy at the grocery store bears little resemblance to wild turkeys. Through years of breeding, we have altered those birds so that they are larger, can’t really fly, and have white feathers. But wild turkeys remain colorful birds that are strong flyers, and here are five interesting facts about them:

1. Ben Franklin called the turkey a “Bird of Courage.”

a photo of a taxidermied wild turkey and turkey skeleton on display in the NHM Bird Hall
Wild turkeys on display in the NHM Bird Hall — both a skeleton and taxidermied skin.

There’s a myth that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our official symbol, but that’s not quite true. The misconception comes from a bit of a misquote from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter about the design of the bald eagle on the U.S. seal, which he said looked a bit like a turkey. And then, after explaining his thoughts about bald eagles having “bad moral character” he goes on to say that the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and… though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.”

2. Brothers make great wingmen.

Pairs of male turkeys, usually close relatives like brothers, cooperate to attract females. Usually one male is higher quality than the other (as in, much nicer looking), and that male does all of the mating. The consolation prize for the more homely of the pair is that, as a close relative, he still passes on a large proportion of his genes to the next generation. Hey, it’s better than nothing!

3. Their coloration comes from hollow structures.

Wild turkeys, unlike their pale farmed cousins, have beautiful iridescent feathers. As Ornithology Assistant Curator Allison Shultz explains, "The colors come from hollow melanosomes — special pigment organelles —  that are arranged in repeating hexagons like a crystal. This is not unique to turkeys, but has evolved in at least seven different families of birds."

a closeup photo of ocellated turkey feathers, which are green, blue, and golden colored
Look at the colorful feathers on this ocellated turkey in the NHM Ornithology Collections.

4. They have spurs!

Just above their feet, turkeys have spurs, which males can use to establish dominance and fight with rival males — sort of the turkey version of having big antlers like deer do.

a closeup photo of wild turkey feet, showing the claw-lied spurs on their ankles
Check out the spur on this ocellated turkey in the NHM Ornithology Collections. Ouch.

5. There are 2 species of turkey today, and several extinct ones.

The more common species of turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, which people simply call the “wild turkey,” and it ranges from Mexico to Canada, with most of them in the midwest and eastern United States. There are even some in California, but those were introduced for people to hunt them (which is a-whole-nother story). The other species, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), is only found in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico and nearby Guatemala and Belize.

There are a handful of extinct species of turkey, and one of them — the California turkey — is best known from fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits.

a photo of a wild turkey from our collections
Collections Manager Kimball Garrett holds a wild turkey from the NHM Ornithology Department. This specimen was collected in Arkansas in 1878, making it one of the oldest specimens in the collections here.
a photo of an ocellated turkey, which is much more colorful than the one found in the U.S.
The ocellated turkey is much more colorful than the wild turkey we see in the U.S.


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