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Fascinating Facts About Your Thanksgiving Turkey

Fascinating Facts About Your Thanksgiving Turkey



Did you know that turkeys can blush? This Thanksgiving-themed article offers a short history of turkeys and some fun turkey facts.  Read on….

Carving through the crisp golden outside of the turkey into the delicious tender meat below is a Thanksgiving honor reserved for the chef, one of the heads of the household, or a special guest. Devouring a plateful of turkey and fixings is the highlight of the fall season for many Americans. And for many American children, snapping the wishbone and hoping to end up with the larger, wish-granting side of the bone is the best part of Thanksgiving.

fun facts about turkeys

There’s so much more to the humble turkey, though, than its place on our Thanksgiving table. The turkey on your Thanksgiving table has a much longer history than most people imagine. It also has some wild relatives with surprising abilities!

Where Your Turkey Came From

Two species of wild turkey call North and Central America home; there are several subspecies of these two main species. Although turkeys are native only to North and Central America, their close relatives–grouse, pheasant, and partridge–are found throughout the world.

The Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) 

fun facts about Thanksgiving turkey

The ocellated turkey is a gorgeous bird, especially the males, with their blue heads and large orange eyes. The feathers of the ocellated turkey are striking: their black and dark grey feathers have bronze, yellow, and green iridescent tips, and some feathers are entirely iridescent, ranging from dark teal through shades of green and chartreuse to bronze. The ocellated turkey has bright red feet and tail feathers that boast an eye-like marking. Ocellated turkeys are found in northern Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico and have never been successfully domesticated.

The Mexican Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo)

fun facts about turkey

The bird on your Thanksgiving table is a domesticated version of the Mexican turkey. Although called the “Mexican” turkey, these turkeys were originally found throughout the Eastern United States as well as in northern Mexico, (including the U.S. states that were formerly Mexican territory.) The Mexican turkey and its various subspecies are what you probably think of when you say “wild” turkey. They generally have a pinkish-grey head and white-barred body feathers that are dark but shine an iridescent bronze in the sunlight.

Show the Turkey Some Respect

Ancient Mayans saw that the ocellated turkey lived on the edges of human settlements but couldn’t be domesticated, and they noticed that when its tail was spread wide, the spots seemed to be looking everywhere at once. The ocellated turkey became a powerful symbol of the space between humans and the rest of the natural world. Ancient Mayans believed the bird could act as a kind of go-between for humans and spirit-beings.

Both the ocellated turkey and the Mexican turkey played important roles in Mayan culture.The Ancient Mayans used the ocellated turkey’s beautiful feathers to decorate important items of clothing, such as the capes worn by leaders. They sacrificed both varieties of turkey as a part of their New Year ceremonies, and ate turkey on important occasions.

Because tracking and hunting individual turkeys was time-consuming, the Ancient Mayans set about domesticating them. But it wasn’t until they imported turkeys from Mexico that they succeeded–more than 2,000 years before the first American Thanksgiving.

What You Might Not Know About Turkeys: Some Fun Facts About Turkeys

Turkeys Can Blush

When a turkey is excited or upset, its neck and head can change color–from the usual pinkish grey to a bright red.

Wild Turkeys Can Swim

Domestic turkeys can’t manage this feat, but wild turkeys can swim by tucking in their wings and paddling their feet–and baby turkeys are especially good swimmers.

Wild Turkeys Sleep in Trees

They’re pretty big and heavy, but like any bird, turkeys don’t want to be caught sleeping by predators. So just like tiny sparrows and finches, turkeys spend the night in trees.

Some Turkeys Have Beards

Well, sort of–many turkeys, both male and female, grow long specialized feathers from their necks. These are called “filoplumes” and can reach all the way to the ground!

Why We Eat Turkey at Thanksgiving

There isn’t any evidence that Turkey was part of the meal at the “First Thanksgiving.” So where did the tradition come from?

Because turkeys are native to North America, and they were first imported to Europe in the late 1400’s, only rich people could afford to eat turkey. So turkey became a fancy food in Europe that people associated with special occasions. By the time English colonists started arriving in North America in the early 1600’s, turkey was already well-established as a holiday food. When Sarah Josepha Hale began her 19th Century campaign to create the Thanksgiving holiday, she published a turkey recipe in her Godey’s Lady’s Book as a suggested food–and the rest is history.

Sources:

Beaty, C (2013). 5 Amazing Facts About Turkeys. Wildlife Habitat Council.

Izquierdo y de la Cueva, AL, and Vega Villalobos, ME (2016). The Ocellated Turkey in Maya Thought. The Pari Journal: Vol. 16, Issue 4.

Melina R, Bryner J (2015). 10 Terrific Turkey Facts. Live Science.

Thornton EK, Emery KF, Steadman DW, Speller C, Matheny R, & Yang D (2012). Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42630.

Strauss, V (2016). Why we celebrate Thanksgiving every year. It isn’t what you think. Washington Post.

Images courtesy: L. Kay on Flickr; MacaulayLibrary.org

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Jocelyn Brown
Jocelyn Brown

A former school teacher, Jocelyn Brown created Hip Mama’s Place in 2007. Her motto for this blog is: get inspired, create and share! Jocelyn loves sharing about food and recipes, crafts, DIY projects and her random travels with her family. She also loves all things social media, but her latest obsession is Instagram.

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44 Comments

  1. Kimmy Manzo
    11/13/2021 / 12:10 pm

    This is so interesting

  2. Rose Jane Carcedo
    11/12/2021 / 5:37 pm

    I love learning new things! I enjoyed reading this things about this beautiful creature!

  3. 11/11/2021 / 2:10 am

    I just eat them without knowing any facts about them. Amazing facts though.

  4. 11/10/2021 / 9:33 pm

    Those are interesting details about turkeys. We see a lot of wild turkeys around here and I never thought much about the different types.

  5. 11/10/2021 / 8:13 pm

    This is interesting! Honestly, I have no idea why or how it became part of the Thanksgiving tradition. Thank you for sharing these fascinating facts. I definitely learned something new today.

  6. 11/10/2021 / 6:18 pm

    did not know there was so much more about the turkey.. thanks for this informative post

  7. 11/10/2021 / 4:35 pm

    I quite enjoyed reading this. It is full of interesting information which makes a great read. :). For example I did not know there were two types of turkeys.

  8. 11/10/2021 / 3:36 pm

    I didn’t know most of these things. Thank you for sharing all the facts.

  9. 11/10/2021 / 10:06 am

    When I read the headline Where your turkey came from, I thought you were referring to whether it was groomed under animal- and environment-friendly circumstances 😀 since here in Europe, this is such a big deal when it comes to meat.

  10. 11/10/2021 / 9:56 am

    Aaaahhhhh…so, all along I’ve grown up knowing the Mexican turkey as the only breed of turkey available? Thanks for this very important lesson in history!

  11. Catalina
    11/10/2021 / 9:17 am

    I am so glad to find out so many new things about turkeys! Love them!

  12. Rosey
    11/10/2021 / 8:43 am

    We used to have wild turkeys running in our yard when we lived up north.I totally forgot about pulling the wishbone I was a kid. That was a big deal!

  13. Alita Pacio
    11/10/2021 / 12:00 am

    This is interesting. I dont think many people know why we eat Turkeys on Thanksgiving

  14. 11/09/2021 / 11:59 pm

    These are all interesting facts. We`ve had turkeys in the backyard before but I didn’t know all these.

  15. 11/09/2021 / 11:58 pm

    I always wondered why we eat Turkeys on Thanksgiving. Now I know why!

  16. 11/09/2021 / 8:18 pm

    Wow, it was an interesting read! I knew little about Turkeys but thanks for sharing all the info 🙂.

  17. 11/09/2021 / 6:51 pm

    I love all these facts. I didn’t know them before.

  18. 11/09/2021 / 5:05 pm

    Fun facts about Turkeys.. Thanks, I honestly didn’t know most of these. Trees? So cool.

  19. Melanie williams
    11/09/2021 / 3:33 pm

    My other half loves his meat so this is right up his street so to speak. so many interesting facts here for sure x

  20. Sarah Bowlin
    11/09/2021 / 3:07 pm

    OH my gosh, this is actually so interesting. I’m not a fan of turkey at all, but I eat it once a year because I’m a huge fan of tradition!

  21. Rose Ann Sales
    11/09/2021 / 1:41 pm

    I really enjoy reading this! I remember my daughter taking photos of my fathers turkey.

  22. 11/09/2021 / 12:28 pm

    I think it’s so important to understand what our food is and where it came from. I love that you have shone a light on this….as well as the fact that a turkey can blush..who knew?

  23. 11/09/2021 / 12:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing these fun and interesting facts about turkeys! I didnt know any of them!

  24. 11/09/2021 / 11:52 am

    These are really interesting facts! I learned a lot more about Turkeys. I didn’t know wild turkeys can swim

  25. Abida
    11/09/2021 / 11:43 am

    All of the facts were entirely new and amazing to me

  26. 11/09/2021 / 10:43 am

    In fact, I know little about Thanksgiving or rather many curiosities, such as these, are unknown to me. I loved reading them!

  27. Taii
    11/09/2021 / 10:39 am

    Such great info! Definitely sharing these with my girls! I had no idea Turkeys could swim!

  28. Richelle Milar
    11/09/2021 / 9:41 am

    I really enjoy reading this post! There’s a lot of facts that I didn’t know until now. I love that turkey dish it looks really delicious!

  29. 11/09/2021 / 5:40 am

    I was today years old when I learned turkeys can swim and that they blush!! Wow! That is absolutely fascinating!

  30. Rachel D
    11/09/2021 / 4:06 am

    I had no idea that turkeys are only native to North and Central America! I have a fact to tell the kids now.

  31. Monica Simpson
    11/09/2021 / 3:17 am

    I’m trying to picture a turkey sleeping in a tree. These were fun facts to read!

  32. 11/09/2021 / 1:12 am

    I had a pet turkey growing up. His name was Earl and you did not want to get on his bad side haha.

  33. 11/09/2021 / 1:07 am

    What a fun article. All sorts of things I didn’t know about turkeys. It is always good to know where our food comes from.

  34. Beth
    11/09/2021 / 1:05 am

    Wow, I learned so much about turkeys! Occasionally we have wild turkeys in our yard, and they are so interesting to observe.

  35. 11/09/2021 / 12:22 am

    There were turkey “farms” all around me when I was a principal. In fact, the town was the home of the Ham and Turkey Festival!

  36. Tasheena
    11/09/2021 / 12:07 am

    I had no idea about a lot of these facts, thanks for sharing!

  37. 11/08/2021 / 11:19 pm

    My husband and I were just talking about the turkey almost being the bird icon for our Country the other night! ha/ha More great info here. 🙂

  38. 11/08/2021 / 11:11 pm

    This was an interesting read. I didn’t know a lot of these, and I’ve always wondered why we eat turkey for Thanksgiving.

  39. Krystal
    11/08/2021 / 8:52 pm

    Wow I never knew all of this about turkeys, so interesting!!

  40. Amber Myers
    11/08/2021 / 8:28 pm

    How cool, I didn’t know a lot of this. I almost feel bad having turkey on Thanksgiving because they can be pretty cute.

  41. 11/08/2021 / 8:16 pm

    I loved learning about turkeys. To think that it was a rich persons food first makes it special.

  42. MELANIE EDJOURIAN
    11/08/2021 / 8:00 pm

    These are interesting facts. I didn’t know wild turkeys slept in trees. Not sure how they’d get in one lol.

  43. Luna S
    11/08/2021 / 7:30 pm

    Interesting post! I loved all of the information that you shared, I had no idea why turkey was part of Thanksgiving.

  44. 11/08/2021 / 5:48 pm

    I have never heard of the ocellated turkey! It looks beautiful! So cool to learn about how turkey became a traditional holiday food.

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