Turkey Facts Versus Fiction

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, turkeys are popping up everywhere from decor to dinner tables. How much do you know about this holiday icon?

Gobble Gobble

One of the most distinctive elements of the turkey is the gobbling noise they famously make. But not all of them chime in with this sound. Only males make a gobbling noise, which is why male birds are called “gobblers.” The noise is a mating call for females (called “hens”) and as a way to compete with other males. In addition to the gobble, they are also able to make a number of other vocalizations, including “purrs,” “yelps,” and “kee-kees.”

 

There are several other ways to tell the gender of a turkey in addition to their vocalizations. One of the more unappealing ways to tell male birds from female birds is by the shape of their droppings. Males produce spiral-shaped droppings, while females produce J-shaped droppings.


Another indicator of the gender of a turkey is the appearance of their snood, the fleshy protuberance above their beak. While both males and females have them, snoods tend to be much more pronounced on males. Studies by the Journal of Avian Biology have shown that females prefer males with larger snoods, and snood length can even be used to predict the winner of a competition between two males.

Presidential Turkeys

Turkeys have a deep connection to America’s founding fathers. There’s even a myth that Benjamin Franklin wanted it to be the national bird of the United States rather than the bald eagle. This rumor stems from a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter criticizing the original eagle design for the Great Seal, saying that it looked more like a turkey. 

 

In the letter, Franklin wrote that the “Bald Eagle…is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…[he] is too lazy to fish for himself.” Franklin also wrote that in comparison to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage.” So while he did defend the bird’s honor, he didn’t go as far as proposing it as the national bird.


While they haven’t gained a spot on the Great Seal, the annual presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey has earned them a national stage. The first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was Abraham Lincoln, who asked the White House to save a bird that his son had grown fond of. However, neither Lincoln nor ​​President Harry Truman, who is often credited as the father of the tradition, actually founded this annual ritual. In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush that created the official pardoning ceremony when he took office in 1989.

Turkey Facts And Figures

Another myth about the turkey is that they’re unable to fly. But in reality, wild turkeys are able to fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour in short bursts. However, this isn’t the case for domesticated birds. They are bred to be heavier, often weighing about twice as much as their wild counterparts, which does render them unable to fly.

 

And that’s not the only downside the domesticated birds face. It’s estimated that about 46 million turkeys are consumed in America for Thanksgiving each year. Last year, the total production in the U.S. was 229 million birds, meaning around 20% of them were consumed during the Thanksgiving holiday alone.

 

To compare another popular holiday dinner staple, an estimated 19 million ready-made pies are sold in the U.S. each Thanksgiving. Since this doesn’t account for homemade pies, it’s possible that the total number consumed is comparable to the number of turkeys eaten. The most popular flavor by far is pumpkin, with a recent survey showing that 62% of respondents planned to eat pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. The closest runner-up was apple pie, with 33% of respondents saying they plan to have this flavor at their holiday dinner.

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