A bald eagle, as the nation's official bird, adorns the
Great Seal of the United States of America. But if
Benjamin Franklin had had his way, a turkey, not a
bald eagle, might have famously gripped those 13
arrows and an olive branch as part of the seal. Franklin
knew, like others who have spent time around this large
bird, that it would have been an honor for the turkey to
represent the United States.

Originating from the Mexican wild turkey, the turkey
was domesticated by Native Americans in prehistoric
times and introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers
in the 1500s. Early American settlers brought
descendants of the Mexican wild turkey into the
United States, and eventually crossed them with
another subspecies of wild turkey indigenous to
eastern North America to produce the forerunner
of the modern domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

Turkeys are usually characterized by large tail feathers
that spread into a fan when they are courting or alarmed.
Turkeys also have several oddly named appendages: the
caruncle, snood, wattle, and beard. A caruncle is a red
fleshy growth on the head and upper neck of the turkey, a snood is the red fleshy growth from the base of the beak which hangs over the side of the beak, and a wattle is the red, loose appendage at the turkey's neck. A beard is the black lock of hairy feathers found on a male turkey's chest.

Commercial Turkeys

The American Poultry Association recognizes eight breeds of turkeys—Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm. The most commonly raised commercial turkey today is the Broad-Breasted White variety, which has all-white plumage and descends from the White Holland. The brown-colored Bronze turkey used to be the bird of choice, but turkey producers found that white pin feathers left less discoloration in the meat than brown ones.

Some small farmers are trying to bring back "heritage breeds"—turkeys that originated in North America—by raising breeds other than the Broad-Breasted White. Certain breeds are listed as "critical" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: those having fewer than 500 breeding birds in North America, with five or fewer primary breeding flocks. These include Beltsville Small White, Black, Jersey Buff, Narragansett, Slate, Bronze, White Holland, and White Midget. Royal Palm is listed as "rare," with fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in North America, and seven or fewer primary breeding flocks.

Most turkeys raised for food have been genetically selected to have large breast meat, and they are unable to fly or reproduce without artificial insemination. They are fed a mix of corn and soybeans during their short life. Over 260 million turkeys were slaughtered for food in 2003 in the United States, most at about 14–18 weeks of age. Commercial, domestic hens (or female turkeys) weigh 15–18 pounds by 14–16 weeks of age, and heavy toms (or male turkeys) weigh 25-32 pounds by 16–18 weeks.

Wild Turkeys

Five subspecies of wild turkeys still inhabit much of the United States, with a population estimated at 6.5 million. The most prevalent bird is the Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), whose forest territory ranges from Maine to parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. Wild turkeys are smaller in size than their domestic counterparts, with a longer neck and body. They have a rich, brown-shaded plumage with a metallic or iridescent sheen, and white and black bars on their primary wing feathers. Toms can stand up to 4 feet tall and weigh more than 20 pounds, while hens are about half that size and weight. Wild turkeys eat nuts, greens, insects, seeds, and fruit, and can live 3–4 years. Their predators include human hunters and animals who disturb their nests, such as crows, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and opossums.

Hens begin nesting in late March or early April, laying one egg a day until the clutch reaches 10–12 eggs. They nest on the ground, in a hidden area in the forest or fields of tall grass. Incubation lasts for 28 days, and hatching occurs over a 24–36 hour period in late May or early June. Poults, or baby turkeys, stay near the nest until they are about 4 weeks old and can fly 25–50 feet. This allows them to escape predators by roosting in trees for the night, usually near their mother.

By three months of age, turkey groups will begin to form a social hierarchy, and an established pecking order is set by five months of age, at which time groups show subdivision by gender. As full-grown adults, wild turkeys can fly at 55 miles per hour and run at 25 miles per hour.

Hens are protective of their young. They will hiss and ruffle their feathers to scare away trespassers, and will only abandon the nest as a last option. Hatching begins with pipping, where the poult rotates inside the egg, breaking the shell in a circular pattern with its egg tooth (a sharp spike on its beak). Hens cluck as they check the eggs, beginning the critical imprinting process. Social cohesion among the poults is evident the first day after hatching, as is attachment to the hen. Vocal and visual signals are used to maintain close contact. This facilitates the learning of certain important activities, particularly feeding. Turkeys are social animals who prefer to live and feed together in flocks.

Protections or Lack Thereof

Like most species hunted for sport or food, wild turkeys are not protected by legislation. Likewise, commercial turkeys are not even included in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, although poultry make up over 95% of the animals killed for food in America. They are raised in crowded factory farms where they are not able to nest or feed like their wild cousins.
World Animal Foundation
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