5-Minute History: The Wild Turkey

Dan Born
Dan Born

Wild Turkey

"This is the first post in a series discussing the often wild history of wild game in North America or at least as much as I can pack in a short, 5-minute read. Like me, you may be hitting he turkey woods any day now. What better game animal for a first post than the Wild Turkey, to me the real first sign of spring and promise of hunting adventures in the year ahead." – Dan Born

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) get a bad rap from their domesticated brethren and are often seen as gullible, comical and relatively stupid. Turkey hunters know that this is far from true. The turkey in its wild form is a thrilling and challenging bird to hunt. It is a proven survivor, having endured predation by man and beast for a very long time.

wild turkey
Don Faulkner/Wikimedia Commons


  • A turkey has between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers on its body
  • A turkeys wingspan can reach up to six feet.
  • You can tell a turkeys sex by its droppings. Males dropping are j-shaped while female dropping are shaped like a spiral.
  • Benjamin Franklin advocated for the turkey to be the National Bird, due to its proud, proactive and at times fierce demeanor.
  • The wild turkey’s head can change color in seconds as a indicator of excitement and emotion. Colors range from red, pink, white or blue

The bird has a long history in North America. Cortez, during his bloody expedition of 1519, recorded that the bird had already been domesticated throughout Mexico and South America. Early settlers recorded flocks in Ohio, Missouri and along the Oklahoma/Texas border that numbered in the thousands. Turkeys have been on the continent a lot longer though.

Wild Turkey Audubon
Plate 6 of Birds of America by John James Audubon

The ancient ancestor of the Wild Turkey crossed the Bering land bridge millions of years ago. After some serious adaptation to living in North America, this proto-turkey evolved to what we would recognize as a Wild Turkey during the Pleistocene Epoch about 2.5 million years ago. By the end of the Pleistocene there were four distinct species of turkey strutting around the countryside; the eastern turkey, the oscillated Turkey, the southwestern turkey, and the California turkey. The latter two species lived in what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Both went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, likely because they were more susceptible to environmental change and human predation. The theory is that during a rather nasty dry spell about 11,500 years ago, the Southwest and California turkeys were forced to flock around ever increasingly shrinking water sources, which grouped them tightly together and left them extremely vulnerable to the nomadic hunter-gatherers who had recently crossed over from Asia. The Southwestern and California turkeys soon were soon extinct. The eastern turkey and oscillated turkeys were saved from this fate due to the environment they lived in, which contained heavier tree cover and a lot more water than the arid southwest.

Paleoindians weren’t the only ones eating turkey for dinner though. The California turkey left a lot of evidence of his passing at the La Brea tar pits, more than any species of bird other than the golden eagle. The tar pits were a real no-win situation for both predator and prey species that found their way into the sticky stuff. Turkeys would get mired in the tar, making for easy pickings for the golden eagles, who upon swooping in for the kill would become trapped themselves. A total of 11,116 fossil specimens from at least 791 individual turkeys had been found in the tar pits as of 2006.

From those initial contacts by prehistoric hunters and continuing into modern times, the turkey has stayed an important cultural component throughout North America. Aztecs honored the bird twice a year during religious festivals, believing the turkey a manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, a trickster god. Navajos in the American southwest were known to capture and pen wild turkeys and fatten up the birds for food. Full-fledged domestication of wild turkeys first began in Mexico. In the eastern United States, domestication wasn’t really necessary due to their abundance in wild forested areas. One simply needed to walk off into the woods and hunt. Tribes used the turkey for more than just food; they were also valued for their feathers which were used in ritual cloaks and burial practices, among other things.

Wild Turkey 25224200549
Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/Wikimedia Commons

Once Europeans hit the continent, they developed a taste for the bird pretty quick. So much so that they transported the birds back to Europe in the 1500s. In an interesting case on “the return of the prodigal son,” Pilgrims brought the now domesticated birds back to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, which then bred with their wild colonial counterparts. As the frontier spread west, turkey numbers decreased to zero in many areas through overhunting and habitat destruction. By the end of the 19th century, the birds had pretty much been wiped out from coast to coast, with only an estimated 30,000 birds remaining. The turkeys that did survive did so by securing themselves in some of the most inaccessible and secluded areas of the Ozarks and Appalachians. They seemed in no hurry to increase their numbers and expand their territory, and the population remained small and at a level that threatened future extinction.

That’s where modern day sportsman and conservationists come in. Something had to be done to return the wild turkey to the greater landscape. These birds were part of the fabric of North America and had played no small part in the country’s founding. They were also fun to hunt, and a great way to put some wild food on the table. By the 1920s numerous states were trying reintroduction programs, with pretty dismal results. The first attempts involved releasing domestic turkeys into the wild; which were promptly served up as dinner for coyotes and other predators. Crossbreeding between domestic and wild turkeys also failed, as the offspring didn’t receive enough of the survival traits necessary for a life in the wild and were once again an easy dinner for predators. Some biologists even managed to collect wild turkey eggs and raised the wild hatchlings on protected game farms before releasing into the wild. Still, they failed. Finally, starting in the 1940s, through a pretty spectacular program of inter-state cooperation, live birds were transported from Missouri to states like Minnesota, which traded 85 roughed grouse for 29 wild turkeys in 1973. The program was so successful, that the state’s first limited wild turkey hunt was conducted just five years later in 1978. A total of 94 birds were bagged.

Over the year’s turkey numbers have increased dramatically, with hunters harvesting an average of 5000 turkeys annually in Minnesota alone. Through the conservation efforts of sportsman and organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation, numbers continue to grow in many areas. Today, there are more than 6 million turkeys roaming North America, from Canada on down to Mexico, representing one of conservations greatest success stories and a true testament to the North American Model of Wild Life Conservation.

dan born wild turkey harvest