Wild Turkey History

Wild turkey history leads from a time that turkeys were the hallmark of the American wilderness to their disappearance from thirty states. With conservation efforts helping wild turkey numbers rebound, wild turkey hunting is once again gaining popularity.

Two turkeys

Wild turkeys are slimmer and taller than their domesticated counterparts, but overall carry about the same amount of dressed meat per pound of live weight.

Photo by Fotolia/photobyjimshane

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Wild Turkeys (Storey Publishing, 1998), by John J. Mettler, Jr., covers everything the aspiring turkey hunter might need to know to be successful. From wild turkey history, habits and habitat to equipment recommendations and field dressing information, Mettler has written the most comprehensive guide for turkey hunters of all ages and skill levels.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Wild Turkeys.

Sitting under a hemlock tree, trying to keep dry while deer hunting on a drizzly November day more than thirty years ago, I thought, “I must have dozed and dreamed I heard turkeys.” Once I was fully awake, I again heard the “churrup churrip” clearly, unmistakably turkey talk, but in the half light of the hemlock swamp I could see nothing. I had read in the New York State Conservationist that wild turkeys were going to be released, but had heard of none in our local area. Still, these were turkey sounds, similar to those I was used to hearing at the Berkshire Sheep and Turkey Farm, a veterinary client of mine.

I loved this particular spot. Deer would come in on occasion to bed down, but even if they didn’t, there were apt to be ruffed grouse, squirrels, blue jays, chickadees, and other small creatures that ignored me while I watched and enjoyed them. One day while I sat under this very tree, a red-tailed hawk swept in and grabbed a gray squirrel from a limb over my head and was gone in the blink of an eye. But turkeys? Still, what other creature made such a noise?

The sound surrounded me, and then invisibly drifted past. I turned my head to peer at a movement on my left. For the first time in my life I heard the classic turkey warning sound, “puck! puck!” As I turned my head the whole forest floor exploded with the flapping of huge, black birds.

It was dry under the tree so I stayed where I was. After about fifteen minutes, from a distance away I heard another sound I’d never heard before, the “chur chur chur” of the hen calling the flock to assemble.

That experience was my first wild turkey lesson. Every subsequent experience with these birds has taught me more and made me realize I still have much to learn.

To this day I marvel at the wild turkey’s hearing and eyesight, unmatched by any other game. As so many hunters say, “If turkeys could detect odors as deer do, it would be impossible to get close enough to kill them.”

The wild turkey is mentioned often in early American history. Written accounts of Hernando de Soto, the Spaniard who in 1540 explored what is now the central southern United States, tell of “wild turkey and other small game.” Accounts of the feast of thanks that the Pilgrims held in 1621 after their first fall harvest mention wild turkey as one of the meats served. The bald eagle was made the national bird by an act of Congress in 1782 over the protest of Benjamin Franklin, who preferred the wild turkey. Franklin considered the eagle a scavenger and “a bird of bad moral character.”

More than two hundred years later, former president Jimmy Carter wrote of Franklin’s choice in his thoughtful book An Outdoor Journal:

“He must have been a good woodsman, because those of us who have gotten to know the wild turkey would certainly agree that its character, clean feeding habits, intelligence, nobility of bearing, uniqueness to America, strong role in our lives since Colonial times, and its inducement for us to preserve some of our most precious habitat, all warrant recognition in a special way.”

The journal of Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, lists the game they killed for food on their trip up the Missouri River in 1804 and mentions wild turkey as one of the preferred meats. But as colonization pushed westward, the clearing of the land and the harvesting of birds for food reduced turkey numbers to thirty thousand a hundred years ago. The only birds left were in the most inaccessible areas.

By 1920 wild turkeys were found in small numbers in only eighteen states, and were extinct in the other thirty.

Origin of the Domestic Turkey

Our tradition of turkey for Thanksgiving dinner has, over the years, spawned domestic turkey production that increases each year. The 1950 edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia stated that turkeys were raised mainly for Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday dinners. It also stated that the wild turkey was extinct north of Pennsylvania and in Canada.

Today turkey meat — low in fat, rich in protein, and competitively priced — is available year-round in markets, not just as frozen or fresh and ready to roast, but also as turkey ham, turkey sausage, turkey bacon, and boned breasts, both fresh and smoked. Gourmet restaurants and markets sell at a premium price farm-raised “wild” and “free-range” turkey. But where did this all start?

An Uncertain History

The Latin name for the turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is used for both domestic and wild varieties. A related bird, Agriocharis ocellata, or the ocellated wild turkey, was found by Spanish explorers in Mexico and Central America in the sixteenth century. This bird had been domesticated by the Native Americans, and there was apparently a large wild population as well. Some of the domestic ocellated birds were taken to Europe, and perhaps even some M. gallopavo. Some sources say that Columbus took turkeys back with him in the fifteenth century. At any rate, by the time the Pilgrims came to North America they were already familiar with the “turkey,” a domestic bird in the British Isles and mainland Europe.

We can only guess why this North American bird was called the turkey. Perhaps the birds were first taken to Turkey (a term that once referred to the entire eastern Mediterranean) before arriving in Europe and the British Isles. Another theory I have often heard but cannot verify is that the bald, red-white-and-blue head of the turkey reminded Europeans of turbaned people from the area they referred to as Turkey.

The Difference Between Wild and Domestic Turkeys

The physical differences between wild and domestic turkeys are vast. You have only to compare a modern supermarket oven-ready bird to a dressed wild bird to see the difference. Despite the difference in shape, however, there isn’t, as you might expect, much difference in the “bottom line” — the amount of meat per pound of gross carcass weight.

My grandson Joe Bosnick completed a sixth-grade science project on the differences between domestic and wild turkeys. Joe removed the soft tissue from the bones of two four-month-old turkeys, one wild and one domestic. He measured length, circumference, and marrow space in the long bones, from both the wing and the leg, in each bird. The ratio of length to circumference confirmed that the domestic bird has a much thicker, heavier bone in proportion to its length. The mounted bones show this difference at a glance. Just comparing the wishbone of a mature male wild turkey to that of a domestic points out the difference in their conformation.

What it all amounts to is that with its light, strong, slim bones the wild turkey can fly, it can run faster than the domestic turkey, and yet it has more lean muscle in proportion to its weight.

In developing the domestic turkey into a very efficient meat producer, some things had to be sacrificed. One of these is natural breeding — made almost impossible by the shape of their bodies and their short legs. On commercial turkey breeding farms, hens are inseminated artificially anyway, so this is really not a problem.


Excerpted from (c) John J. Mettler Jr., D.V.M., illustrations by Jack Mesick used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Wild Turkeys