University of Illinois Extension

History & Lore

Dressing a Really Big Bird

Without turkeys, Big Bird would be naked. Big Bird, of Sesame Street fame, is actually dressed in turkey feathers. Although he is not a turkey, his costume is made of nearly 4,000 white turkey feathers, which have been dyed bright yellow.

The First Turkey Trot

In England, during the 1700's, turkeys were walked to market in large herds. Turkey farmers often covered the birds' feet with little booties to protect them on the long journey to the London market. Head ‘em up, move ‘em out.

Turkey: The National Bird?

Ben Franklin thought the North American wild turkey should be the national bird. Of course, the turkey of his day was nothing like the domesticated descendants we know today. The wild turkey of Ben Franklin's day was a brightly plumed, cunning bird of flight.

Unlike eagles, turkeys live in flocks. Imagine seeing a flock of birds as large as turkeys flying across the sky. It must have been a wondrous sight. Wild turkeys have longer necks and legs as well as smaller breasts than turkeys bred for the table. The true American turkey was "wild and wary to the point of genius," said author G. T. Klein.

Ben Franklin on the Turkey as the National Bird holidays-20001113- 135438.html
A letter from Ben Franklin to his daughter about his desire to make the turkey the national bird.

Too Big to Breed

The most prized portion of the turkey is the white meat of the breast. Because Americans like white meat so much, turkeys are bred to produce large breasts. Our domesticated turkeys have such large chests that the male, "tom turkey" is not able to fertilize the eggs of the female, "hen turkeys" in the natural mating position. Today, turkey eggs are fertilized by artificial insemination for the hatchery.

What's a Wattle Anyway?

The head and neck of turkeys have no feathers; rather it is covered with red, fleshy skin. A soft floppy growth on the front of the head, which dangles downward over the beak, is called the snood or dewbill. The turkey also has a pouchlike area at the front of his throat which is called a wattle. The head, neck, snood and wattle are all reddish colored until the male turkey begins to do his "strut" or mating dance at which time the entire area turns brilliantly bright red.

White Meat or Dark?

Did you ever wonder why the breast and wings of chickens and turkeys have white meat while the legs and thighs are dark? The explanation is a physiological one involving the function of muscles, which gives some insight into humans as well as animals. The dark coloration is not due to the amount of blood in muscles but rather to a specific muscle type and it's ability to store oxygen.

Gobble, Gobble!

Only the adult male turkey makes the gobbler, gobble sound. The adult male is called the "tom" turkey. The female or hen turkey makes a gentle clucking or clicking sound. The hen never gobbles.

Strutting His Stuff

In pictures and drawings, the male turkey is usually shown in his proudest moment. For those of you who have not seen a real turkey, the puffed up picture is actually the male turkey and this is not his usual stance. This feather works display only lasts for a few minutes but it can be seen several times daily.

The male turkey in full plumage is dignified and almost royal in appearance. As his dance begins, the body stiffens and he gobbles loudly holding his head high, piercing black eyes looking straight ahead. His huge chest is thrust forward. Each feather stands apart with his tail feathers fanned. His wings actually drape down and drag the ground as he stamps his spurred feet. Moving in a circle around the barnyard for all to see. For a few glorious minutes each day, he is the finest, most magnificent animal on the farm.

The tom turkey does this number to attract the attention of the female, of course, who never seems to look directly at him. When he is not "strutting" about, the tom turkey looks much like the hen, only larger. As for strutting his stuff, no one and nothing does it better than the proud, adult tom turkey.

Hey, You Turkey!

During the ‘70's a popular slang expression was to call a person doing a stupid thing, a "turkey." Being called a turkey was not a compliment, in fact, it meant you were incompetent. The comparison was to the domestic turkey that has been bred into a condition of profound stupidity.

How The Turkey Got It's Name

There are a number of possibilities on why turkeys are called turkeys. Some say Columbus thought the land he discovered was connected to India which had a large population of peacocks. Columbus thought turkeys were part of the peacock family. He decided to call them tuka, which is the word for peacock in the language of India.

Others say that the name turkey came from Native Americans who called the birds firkee, which sounds like turkey.

Some say that turkey name came from the sound turkeys make when they are afraid - "turk, turk, turk."

The Christmas Bird

Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol is credited for popularizing the serving of turkey for Christmas dinner.

Thanksgiving Proclamation

After the first Thanksgiving in 1621, it took over 200 years before Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed as a national day of thanksgiving, praise and prayer in 1863.

Americans Love Turkey

Over the past 20 years, Americans' consumption of turkey has increased dramatically. In 1975, Americans ate 8.3 pounds of turkey per year and in 1995, Americans ate over 18 pounds of turkey per year.

A Persistent Magazine Editor

Sara Hale, a magazine editor, wrote editorials pushing for a day of Thanksgiving. Finally after 40 years of writing editorials and letters to politicians, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Franklin Roosevelt Thanksgiving Controversy

Franklin Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving one year to a week earlier than usual in 1939 to make the Christmas shopping season longer. There was a tremendous outpouring of public disapproval so, in 1941 Thanksgiving was declared a legal holiday by Congress.

Dancing Turkeys

The "turkey trot" was a dance made popular in the early 1900’s. Conservative members of society thought the dance was demoralizing and tried to get it banned at public function, which only served to increase it’s popularity. The turkey trot was not a graceful dance, as couples danced around in circles bobbing their heads like strutting tom turkeys. Alas, it was soon replaced by the ever so popular "Fox Trot" in 1914.

Turkey Eggs

Although wild turkeys like to rest in trees at night, they build crude nests of dry leaves on the ground. Turkey eggs are almost twice as large as ordinary chicken eggs. They have a pale creamy-tan color, with dark brown speckles. The huge yolk is golden-orange in color. Fertile turkey eggs take 28 days to hatch.

Peacock or Turkey

Biologists know of two kinds of wild turkey. One is called the ocellated turkey, which is native to Yucatan and Guatemala. It is a brilliantly colored bird with eyelet spots on its tail similar to that of a peacock. The other is the wild turkey common to Mexico and the United States. At one time this wild turkey migrated as far north as Maine and southern Ontario, Canada.

Bowling a Turkey

In the sport of bowling, when a player bowls three strikes in a row—it is called a turkey.

Which came first—the Pilgrim or the turkey?

Wild turkeys were probably first domesticated by native Mexicans. Spaniards brought tame Mexican turkeys to Europe in 1519, and they reached England by 1524. The Pilgrims actually brought several turkeys to America on the voyage in 1620.

The Biggest Turkey

Several varieties of turkeys live in America. The largest is the Bronze turkey. The adult male or tom weighs up to 50 pounds while the female or hen can weigh up to 16 pounds. These larger turkeys are still popular for use in restaurants but are too large for even the most well attended family gathering.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head

Turkeys are extremely curious creatures by nature. Groups of domesticated turkey have been seen standing in the rain with their beaks pointed straight up toward the sky. What are they doing? According to poultry research at the University of Illinois, it is unclear. Some turkey experts speculate that these birds are curiously looking at raindrops falling from the sky. Or could they be attempting to get a drink of water? We are still not sure! An old wives tale suggests that turkeys have been known to actually drown in this position. While this has not be substantiated at the University of Illinois, we do know that without guidance, some domestic turkeys do not know enough to come in out of the rain. If they are young and still covered with down instead of their true feathers, they are much more likely to suffer from exposure than from drowning. Not having enough sense to come in out of the rain may be an understatement in this situation.

Pecking turkeys

Turkeys will peck at just about anything, including each other.

History of Thanksgiving
Find out what the Pilgrims really ate at the first Thanksgiving dinner.

Look! Up in the Sky. Is it an Eagle? Is it a Turkey?

No! It is a turkey vulture. But turkey vultures (buzzards) are not related to turkeys. The bald red head, beautiful silver and black feather coloration, and wingspread resemble that of wild turkeys—thus the name turkey vulture. They are scavengers with an extremely keen sense of smell, which is rare in birds. They are not aggressive. They feed on dead meat and vegetation, since the beak and weak claws are not designed for the hunt. In 1994 turkey vultures were reclassified into the same order as storks and flamingos. Turkey vultures soar with wings in a wide, shallow “V” formation rather than straight out like eagles. Unlike the wild turkey, they have a short neck and short legs. They are fond of warm weather, migrating to all regions of the US at various times of the year. Bill Kohlmoos, President of the Turkey Vulture Society, gives more fascinating information about this interesting creature at

Turkey in Turkey

A web search for turkey will generate a lot of information about the Republic of Turkey, an eastern European nation. If you visit the country of Turkey, you will not find turkey on the menu. It is referred to as what translates into “large bird.”

Wild Turkey Bourbon

If you are from the Midwest or like bourbon whiskey, you’ve probably heard of Kentucky Wild Turkey Bourbon. How did this famous bourbon get its name? Well, back in 1940 Thomas McCarthy, a hunter and distillery executive, brought a private supply of bourbon along with him on an annual wild turkey hunt with his friends. The following year the good old boys requested more of the same bourbon referring to it as “Wild Turkey.” Mr. McCarthy later honored his friends by turning the nickname into a legendary brand of Kentucky bourbon. Today, the distillery is located in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. True story.

History of the Wild turkey in North America
Detailed history of the wild turkey.