The Wild Turkey might be the most recognizable bird in North America. Of course, a big reason for that is due to its strong association with Thanksgiving. But the turkey’s large size, impressive plumage, and distinct look from the neck up make this bird hard to mistake no matter the time of year. Despite so many Americans being familiar with the Wild Turkey, however, folks might be surprised to discover that they know very little about them—and what they think they do know might actually be myth. Read on to learn some fun facts about everyone’s favorite gobbler.
1.) Turkeys are believed to be named after the country. Linguists theorize that early Europeans were reminded of their African Guinea Fowl back home, which was native to Turkey, and the similarity led to its name.
2.) There are only two species of Wild Turkey: Ours here in North America and the Ocellated Turkey in Central America. The North American Wild Turkey has five distinct subspecies and also comes in a variety of color morphs.
3.) Male turkeys can weigh up to 25 pounds, while the average female is around half that weight. Despite this heft and their reputation for being ground dwellers, Wild Turkeys often roost overnight in trees to avoid predators.
4.) While they might not look like the fastest birds, Wild Turkeys are surprisingly confident fliers, capable of hitting 60 miles per hour. They are also more agile than they appear.
5.) Turkeys have excellent eyesight, seeing three times more clearly than 20/20 vision. They can also see in color and have a 270-degree field of vision. This—along with their generally wary nature—gives them an edge on both predators and hunters.
6.) Did you know you can discern a turkey’s sex from its droppings? It’s true. Male scat is shaped like the letter J, while a female’s droppings are more spiral-shaped.
7.) Wild Turkey populations plummeted in the 19th century due to popularity as a game bird and a loss of habitat, with the species disappearing entirely from New England. Fortunately, Wild Turkey conservation efforts throughout the 20th century led to a sharp rebound throughout their historic range, with the birds taking over the Northeast and even some Midwest towns in recent decades.
8.) Along with their waddles and snoods—the piece of flesh that dangles from the beak—turkeys have another standout feature: beards. The bundle of feathers sprouting from their chests is known as a turkey beard, and it gets longer as the bird ages. While all males have beards, some females also grow them, though why is still a mystery to scientists.
10.) The first official presidential turkey pardon was given by George H.W. Bush in 1989, but reports credit many presidents with the tradition, including Abraham Lincoln, whose son took a liking to the turkey destined for Christmas dinner, and Harry Truman, who was the first to appear in a photo op with a turkey that would later be served.
Bonus fact: Another turkey fan, John James Audubon featured “Wild Turkey, Male” as the first bird in his landmark guide Birds of America. He later followed up that work with a second portrait portraying a hen and her poults.