What’s Thanksgiving without family, without friends or more importantly without turkey? The Thanksgiving celebration seems remiss without some talk of turkey. After all, Thanksgiving is sometimes referred to as “Turkey Day.” Whether with gravy, cranberry sauce or grandma’s famous stuffing, this famous fowl is a central theme for most special celebrations, but what do we really know about Thanksgiving holiday’s most famous fowl?
What’s in a Name
There is a lot of confusion of how turkeys got their name. Some attribute the name to Christopher Columbus, who discovered wild turkeys in the New World. Thinking turkeys were in the peacock family, he referred to them as “tuka.” Native Americans were, of course, familiar with the fast running fowl and named them “firkee.” There are others who believe that the turkey is named for the country Turkey. Wild turkeys were sold by Turkish merchants and so many referred to the fowl as a turkey bird.
Not Just for Dinner
Scientist believe that turkeys have lived in North America for almost ten million years. They were a staple of North American indigenous people’s diet for centuries. However, they were used for more than just meat. The turkey’s feathers were used to adorn ceremonial clothing and stabilize arrows. The tom, or male turkey’s, spurs were used as arrowheads and the turkey’s bones were used to make callers.
With the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, turkey lovers would be pleased to know that the Sesame Street’s famous Big Bird is clothed in nearly 4,000 white turkey feathers.
Also, turkey skin can be used liked leather. It has been used to make cowboy boots and belts.
The Turkey versus the Eagle
When our forefathers were debating possible symbols of our nation, they considered a rattlesnake, dove, rooster and a phoenix as well as the bald eagle. However, Benjamin Franklin had privately mused, in a letter to his daughter, that the wild turkey would have been a better choice. Franklin had thought the bald eagle was a lazy bird with poor moral character. He felt the wild turkey was more respectable and a fowl that demonstrated great courage.
While domesticated turkeys are not flyers, wild turkeys can glide as far as a mile. Turkeys have been known to fly for short distances at 55 miles per hour. They can run between 18-20 miles per hour.
Turkeys are considered part of the pheasant family and large groups of them, as the same as other birds, are called a flock. They do not see well at night, but have keen sense of hearing. There heads can turn 270 degrees.
Male turkeys are called gobblers or toms, while female turkeys are called hens. Their cute babies are referred to as poults (and not chicks.) A female turkey can lay almost 20 eggs at a time. It takes nearly one month for turkey eggs to hatch.
The largest turkey raised, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, was 86 pounds. Turkeys can adapt to many different habitats, but in the early 1900s, the wild turkey was almost wiped out in American because of overhunting and deforestation (to build farms and communities.) Turkeys do have heart attacks if startled or afraid and have been known to drown from simply looking up during a rain storm. The “Turkey Trot” was a popular dance around the 1900s. was so named because dancers would mimic the jerky moves of the fowl.
Innocent or until Guilty
Many Americans have heard of the annual turkey pardon, or as its more formally known the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. In this ceremony, the President is presented with a holiday turkey and generally offers it a presidential pardon. The bird is spared from being a main course for the Commander in Chief.
This origin of this tradition is unclear. Some credit President Truman with starting the informal tradition, but there are few records of this being the case. President Kennedy spared a turkey, but did not formally pardon. President Reagan pardoned his friendly fowl while deflecting questions about other controversial pardons. Since November 1989 during the first Thanksgiving of President George Herbert Walker Bush, the president has granted a presidential pardon to a “specially designated White House” turkey through a more formalized ceremony. Since 2005, the pardoned poultry have been sent to either the Disneyland in California or Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where they serve as honorary grand marshals for Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Turkeys are some of the most popular birds in America, because of their significance to special celebrations. While the domesticated counter part was definitely not on the Pilgrims feast list, its wilder cousin most likely was. Although times have changed, one thing stays the same. Turkey remains a big part of Thanksgiving.