Americans love turkey, but what do we really know about this mysterious bird? Sure it’s indigenous to the Americas, but how did it become the symbol of Thanksgiving deliciousness? What do they even eat? We’ve uncovered a few unusual facts about one of this country’s most beloved birds.
1. Turkeys Can Fly
Wild turkeys feed on the ground, which might explain the myth of their flightlessness. They can, in fact, soar for short bursts at up to 55 mph, but their tendency to stay on or near the ground contributed to successful hunting that brought the wild population of turkeys down to about 30,000 in the 1930s. There are now 7 million of them.
2. They Have Distinguishing Droppings
A turkey’s gender can be determined from its droppings – males produce spiral-shaped poop and the females’ poop is shaped like the letter J.
3. They Eat Reptiles
Okay, so that's not all they eat, but turkeys do have quite a diet throughout their lifetime. Baby turkeys, called poults, eat berries, seeds and insects, while adults have a more varied diet that can include acorns and small reptiles.
4. Turkeys Eggs Wouldn't Sell
Chickens are champion egg-producers. Turkeys, not so good. Turkey eggs are bigger, so their nests tie up coop space. And farmers have learned that they make more raising turkeys for meat rather than eggs. Oh, and some turkeys are protective of their eggs, making the gathering more challenging.
5. There's Less Dark Meat Because...
Meat is muscle. And muscle is fed by blood. In the blood is myoglobin, which binds with oxygen and stores it in muscles for when it's needed. Myoglobin also makes meat dark. Muscles that are used most, like those in drumsticks (legs), have more myoglobin. Domestic turkeys are too fat to fly, so they don't use their breast muscles much, which is why breast meat is white. The breast of a wild turkey is entirely different, darker (and far tastier for those who are game).
6. It's Not the Turkey That Makes You Sleepy
Turkey contains a natural chemical called tryptophan, which we need to build proteins for our bodies. Indeed, tryptophan is also related to the production of serotonin, which helps us sleep. But all meat has about the same amount of tryptophan. Cheddar cheese has a lot more. What really makes you sleepier after a Thanksgiving meal compared to other meals is eating too many carbohydrates, from potatoes to pies. Alcohol can contribute, too.
7. Dinosaurs Had Wishbones, Too
The wishbone, called a furcula, is the fusion of two collarbones at the sternum. It's where a bird’s flying muscles hook up. It's elastic and great for flapping. Turns out T. Rex and the Velociraptor had wishbones, too. While they didn't fly, this fairly recent discovery is one of the many bits of evidence that shows birds evolved from dinosaurs.
8. They Were Nearly Extinct
The wild turkey was hunted nearly to extinction by the early 1900s, when the population reached a low of around 30,000 birds. After World War II, biologists started the first successful hatch-and-release efforts, which helped bring about a resurgence of the bird in North America.
9. The Pilgrims Did Not Eat Turkey
Contrary to popular belief, most of the traditional foods that adorn our holiday tables today were not consumed by the pilgrims and Native Americans. America owes its feasting tradition to the work of one woman: Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale, an entrepreneurial homemaker in the mid 19th century (think Martha Stewart of the 1800s) championed the idea of a holiday to celebrate America by being thankful for what we have and giving back to others who do not. Hale’s early articles featured substantial turkey dinners in ladies’ magazines and cookbooks. After lobbying several politicians for 17 years, she was eventually able to convince President Lincoln that Thanksgiving needed to be a national holiday, which was declared on October 3, 1863.
And we are thankful that she did.
Check out some of the most unique turkey recipes here.