Ben Franklin's National Bird: The Wild Turkey

An introductory look at Ben Franklin's vote for the national bird, the wild turkey, including its history, habits and habitat.

| March/April 1986

  • 098-075-01
    Today — according to the latest estimate released by the National Wild Turkey Federation — the continental U.S. supports a population of between 2 and 2.5 million wild turkeys.

  • 098-075-01

Your basic farmyard gobbler may be something of a birdbrain, but his untamed cousin is one of the craftiest critters in the woods.  

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN KNEW THAT AMERICA WAS FULL OF TURKEYS, which he considered to be hardy, intelligent, and beautiful birds. In fact, he even lobbied to have the wild turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo ) designated as young America's national symbol. Looking back on it now — especially in light of the secondary meaning attached to the word turkey in modern American English usage — it's just as well that Uncle Ben's candidate was soundly defeated by the rival Bald Eagle party.

But in fairness to the good Mr. Franklin, we should keep in mind that beauty is in the eye — however nearsighted or jaundiced that organ may be — of the beholder. And Ben's fine-feathered friend the wild turkey does have a few attributes that should appeal to anyone with good taste . . . especially at the dinner table.

The Wild Turkey

TURKEY SCHOLARS (yes, there are such beings) have estimated that North America's pre-Columbian wilderness supported more than 10 million wild turkeys. Of course (the familiar story), by 1900 the big birds were nearing extinction because of habitat reduction and overhunting. Today — according to the latest estimate released by the National Wild Turkey Federation — the continental U.S. supports a population of between 2 and 2.5 million wild turkeys. In fact, every state save Alaska is now home to a self-sustaining wild turkey population. That's a remarkable comeback, due almost entirely to strict controls on hunting and the advent of innovative management programs involving restocking depleted areas as well as introducing starter populations of the bird to new habitat.

WHETHER OR NOT THE WILD TURKEY IS CONSIDERED BEAUTIFUL depends, in more ways than one, upon individual point of view. When seen from a distance and in the right light, the wild gobbler glows with iridescent red, green, blue, and copper tones painted on a sleek, dark background. But if you single out just the head and neck for inspection, you'll be confronted with a bald, misshapen mess.

Among the most obvious of M. gallopavo's facial beauty problems are the fatty wattles dangling from the throat and projecting from above the bill and the equally unsightly caruncles of the neck. However, these gross appendages are also remarkable in their ability to change size, shape, and color to reflect the mood of their owner. A sexually aroused tom might, for instance, alter the coloration of his head and its protuberances from gray-blue to red — then back to blue again, seemingly on command.

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