With Thanksgiving right around the corner, lots of people will be thinking about turkey — where to buy one, how to prepare the bird and how many leftovers there will be for sandwiches on Friday. But how much do any of us really know about turkeys?
For instance, did you know that while most of the turkeys eaten on Thanksgiving come from farms, there are still wild turkeys across North America? Or that the species has been around for 5 million years? Or that there’s a kind of turkey in Mexico known as the ocellated turkey, whose feathers shimmer an iridescent orange and turquoise?
To learn more about these underappreciated animals, I talked to Bradford Kasberg, wetland restoration manager for Audubon Great Lakes. Kasberg is also a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which holds the turkey in high regard.
Where others might see a fat, bumbling bird with a funny face and a silly gobble, Kasberg says his community sees turkeys as highly social and communicative creatures that other animals rely upon.
“Anything with sharp teeth and claws really wants to eat these birds,” Kasberg says. Turkey predators include hawks, coyotes, foxes and wolves, as well as raccoons and opossums, which like to eat turkey eggs and chicks (called poults). “Turkeys are big, they have a lot of meat on them, they’re fairly slow-moving, and they’re on the ground most of the time.”
However, Kasberg noted that wild turkeys can take to the sky if need be.
“They can’t fly for long periods of time, but they’re agile enough to fly away and escape predators. They typically sleep on the top of trees,” he says.
Aside from the gobble, turkeys produce up to 28 calls to stay in touch with their flock, Kasberg says. The flock usually includes a group of adult females and their babies. Because everything wants to eat them, a turkey flock will cluck, coo and gobble constantly to keep tabs on one another and let the others know if anything dangerous comes too close. The adults can also be pretty aggressive if they or their poults are cornered, he says.
Here’s another fun fact: Male turkeys, called toms, have bald, featherless heads with all sorts of dangling skin flaps and knobs known as the snood, the wattle and caruncles. These funny bits can change color, from whitish or blue to bright red, when the birds get excited. They may also play a role in keeping the turkey cool.
So this Thanksgiving, before you tuck into your feast, take a moment to think about the bird on your table and where it comes from. While turkeys are little more than deli meat to many of us, out in the wild, they are providers and survivors — wattles, gobbles and all.