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Turkeys Are True Animal Oddities

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Over on my Animal Oddities blog for Animal Planet, I write about the strange and bizarre stories, behavior and sightings from the animal world. Every once in a while, however, I simply write about a species that, just by its very existence, warrants a closer look because it is so odd.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of those animals. Here are some odd facts about this amazing bird.

--Wild turkeys are only found in the Americas and were first domesticated by the Aztecs of present day Mexico and the Anasazi Indians from what is now the desert Southwest. Spanish explorers liked the Aztec bird so much, they took a flock back to Europe, where several new varieties were developed. Those "European turkeys" were eventually brought back to North America and are the ancestors of the white-breasted turkey that is the variety raised commercially (as well as the heritage breeds, many of which look much more like their wild ancestors).

--In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin famously declared his dissatisfaction with the selection of the bald eagle as the national symbol of the United States. In a classic example of anthropomorphism, Franklin felt the eagle had "a bad moral Character" because it scavenges dead carcasses and often steals the prey of other raptors such as osprey. He thought the wild turkey was a much better candidate because it was "a much more respectable Bird" that despite the fact that it was "a little vain and silly" was still a "Bird of Courage."

--Wild turkeys are one of the few species that have made a remarkable recovery despite being almost totally eradicated by humans. Once found over wide areas of North America, by the early 20th century, as a result of unsustainable hunting and habitat destruction, the species was largely wiped out. Today, due to the efforts of conservation groups (such as the National Wild Turkey Federation and my organization, the National Wildlife Federation), strong conservation laws and extensive reintroduction efforts, the wild turkey is now a thriving.

--Male wild turkeys are the odder-looking sex of their species. They sport strange growths on their neck and faces that even have odd names: the waddle is the loose skin on the neck and the snood is the fleshy protuberance that grows from the forehead and dangles over the beak. They both are used in territorial and courtship displays, when they become engorged with blood, causing them to swell and change color (which apparently intimidates other males and turns on the females). Male turkeys are also equipped with inch-long spikes on the back of their legs called spurs, which they use to fight off other males and would-be predators.

--Turkeys have both white and dark meat, which is actually two different types of muscle tissue that the birds use for different purposes. Dark meat comes from hard-working muscles that require a large amount of oxygen and energy brought to them by blood vessels. In the case of turkeys and chickens, which primarily get around by walking and running, the dark meat is found in their legs. Birds that walk or swim with their legs but also fly long distances for migration and take to the wind when threatened, such as ducks and geese, typically have a lot more dark meat muscle.

--Baby turkeys are called poults and unlike the babies of songbirds, wading birds or raptors, they don't sit in a nest and get fed by their parents. Instead, they are precocial, which means that shortly after hatching they are able to leave the nest and feed themselves. They still stick close to mom for protection, but they are otherwise pretty much self-sufficient right out of the egg.

--Wild turkeys sometimes show up in odd places. Despite being shy, smart and elusive in the wild (just ask a turkey hunter), they are surprisingly adaptable and, as their population has recovered in the last few decades, they've learned to live in close proximity to people. They show up at backyard bird feeders and in some cases the territorial male turkeys have been known to chase people across their front lawns, which the birds have claimed as their own. I personally have seen a wild turkey walking down a street in Washington DC. When I first saw it, I thought it was a dog because I never would have expected to see a wild turkey walking down a city sidewalk!

VIDEO: Check out this video of clip of my appearance on the Today Show this week, where I brought on animals that were important to the survival of European colonists and American Indians alike, including the turkey.

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