According to legend, Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be a national symbol of the fledgling United States. That actually isn’t true.
However, Ben apparently did have a high opinion of the bird. According to the Franklin Institute, when comparing it to the bald eagle, Franklin considered the turkey more courageous and wrote that it was “… a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America …. “
Franklin was right to admire the turkey, although even the great scientist, statesman, and founding father didn’t know everything about them. And like anything that becomes attached to a holiday tradition, turkeys have long attracted their own share of myths and misinformation. Here, then, are a few facts we do know about turkeys.
1. Where Are Turkeys From?
While Ben Franklin was correct in believing the turkey to be native to North America, he didn’t necessarily mean Mexico. But that is indeed where Meleagris gallopavo, the species we know and love to eat, came from.
Archaeological research has revealed that the Maya domesticated this species of turkey as early as 2,000 years ago. Living on a diet of foraged nuts and berries, these birds had rich, delectable meat that Spanish explorers, when they arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, would have found as irresistible as we do today.
Who Introduced Turkeys to America?
Through various means, those delicious birds made their way to Europe, where they continued to be bred and eaten by appreciative diners, including in England. Eventually, when English colonists came to North America, they brought some of those domesticated Mexican turkeys with them.
Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?
The colonists also found wild turkeys thriving in the regions where they established homesteads. But it is Meleagris gallopavo — more specifically, their descendants — who would become the dominant turkey species that we associate with Thanksgiving.
2. What Does Turkey Mean?
While the word turkey is freighted with many pejorative meanings for us today, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the byword for something fancy and stylish. The Ottoman Empire, whose seat of power was in Turkey, was a well-known outlet for interesting and exotic contributions to both world culture and world cuisine.
As the Turks imported many different goods into Western Europe that people had never seen before, it was fashionable, especially in England, to refer to something in Turkish terms.
Even today, the English language commemorates Turkey’s cultural acumen. Thus, the irresistible dessert known in Turkey as lokum is known to English speakers as Turkish delight.
Where Does the Word Turkey Come From?
A beautiful semi-precious stone originally imported through the Ottoman Empire became known as turquoise. And turkey coq (or cock, a male fowl) became the somewhat awkward name for those birds from Mexico, which were also imported through Turkey.
Eventually, turkey coq was shortened to turkey, and the flavorful fowl has remained a delicious darling on the tables of Europeans — and their colonial counterparts — ever since. The derogatory meanings associated with the word would come much later.
3. Was Turkey Served at the First Thanksgiving?
As most American children were taught in school, the Pilgrims of Massachusetts’ Plymouth colony celebrated that first famous feast of Thanksgiving back in 1621, a three-day event to commemorate a successful harvest and the colony’s survival after many hardships.
What Was Actually Served at the First Thanksgiving?
Depending on which source you consult, some historians will assert that turkeys did not appear on the menu and that instead, the colonists and their Native American friends likely enjoyed a bounty of other foods, including deer, fish, and, of course, vegetables from the harvest.
While there’s no empirical evidence that a turkey adorned the first Thanksgiving table, common sense suggests that at least one gobbler could have been gobbled up on that auspicious occasion. After all, Plymouth’s own governor, William Bradford, noted a plenitude of wild turkeys in the colony at that time.
The historical record also shows that in preparation for the big feast, Bradford sent men out “fowling,” or hunting for game birds, to put more meat on the table. It would have been strange indeed if at least some of the birds that the hunters brought back didn’t come from the local and abundant population of turkeys.
4. When Did Wild Turkeys Almost Go Extinct?
A little over 300 years later, wild turkeys in the U.S., once practically ubiquitous, were hunted almost to extinction. In the 1930s, it was estimated that fewer than 30,000 wild turkeys were left in the country, from a population density that was once considered to be around 10 million or more.
How Were Wild Turkeys Saved?
States began imposing hunting regulations, while conservationists began trapping live wild turkeys where they were still plentiful, transferring those turkey toms and hens to states where their numbers had dwindled. The trap-and-transfer strategy worked; now wild turkeys have staged a comeback, with the current U.S. population estimated at around 7 million, making turkeys one of the great success stories in the annals of species repopulation.
While it might have been a rare thing to catch a glimpse of even one turkey in the wild a generation ago, today, it’s not uncommon to see masses of them congregating in most rural areas and even suburban neighborhoods. The group name for wild turkeys, by the way, is a flock. A group of domesticated turkeys is known as a gaggle or sometimes a rafter.
Read More: Turkeys Are Capable of “Virgin Birth”
5. Can Turkeys Fly?
Despite popular belief, turkeys really can fly. But don’t blame yourself if you thought otherwise. Let’s face it: even the skinniest turkey doesn’t look the least bit aerodynamic. And turkeys exhibit a distinct predilection for staying on the ground — it’s where the best forage can be found, after all.
Do Turkeys Roost in Trees?
Nonetheless, wild turkeys can get airborne when the need arises, although they would hardly win any points for style, and they can’t go very far or very high. But their wings are powerful enough that turkeys can flap their way up to the branches of nearby trees and roofs, where they will roost. And if its life depended on it, a turkey could fly as fast as 50 miles an hour for distances of 100 or more yards.
Read More: The Ancient Art of Raising Turkeys
6. Does Turkey Make You Sleepy?
While there’s still room for conjecture on some historical aspects of Thanksgiving, researchers today can dispel one myth with some certainty: the notion that feasting on turkey will make you sleepy. Turkey meat does indeed contain tryptophan, an amino acid that is associated with drowsiness when consumed. However, tryptophan is found in lots of foods, and some of them — milk and tuna fish, for example — contain more tryptophan than the average serving of turkey.
Why Does Thanksgiving Food Make You Sleepy?
If you find yourself succumbing to a post-Thanksgiving nap, it probably has more to do with all of the high-carbohydrate side dishes you heaped on your plate. A big intake of carbs will cause both an increase in blood sugar and in other chemicals that will naturally make you sleepy. Sure, as part of a festive feast, a serving of turkey may contribute to your Thanksgiving torpor, but you can’t blame it all on the bird.