Ask a Naturalist – Turkey on the table

c-miss turkey domestic v. wild turkeys


Q: What’s the connection between wild turkeys I see around the neighborhood and my Thanksgiving turkey?

Think about the stereotypical image of a Thanksgiving dinner table, and you probably picture numerous side dishes, with a centerpiece of a big brown roasted turkey, large enough to feed an entire extended family. Unlike almost all of the domesticated animals that Americans regularly eat as meat, which came from the Europe and Asia, the turkey actually originated in North America. In fact, you may have seen the wild relatives of that Thanksgiving turkey walking around your neighborhood or local park. How did that wild bird make the journey to becoming the domesticated bird found on your dinner plate? And if it comes from here, why does it have the same name as a country a quarter of the way around the world?

Prior to the 16th Century, wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo, loosely translated as guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock) covered most of the eastern half of the United States and Mexico. Between the six subspecies, wild turkeys ranged from what is now southern New England across to southern Minnesota, as far west as parts of New Mexico and Arizona, as well as down into Mexico. Incidentally, it was one of the smallest subspecies, the South Mexican Wild Turkey (M. g. gallopavo), that was domesticated by the ancient peoples of central Mesoamerica at least 2,000 years ago. The Aztecs called the bird Huehxolotl and associated it with their trickster god. In the southwest, Navajo tribes call the turkey Tązhii and folklore tells that they brought corn to into this world.

When the Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire in the 16th Century, one of the foods they brought back to Europe was the turkey. When the birds eventually arrived in England, it was most likely via a trading route that led through the country of Turkey, leading the English to believe that was the ultimate origin of the bird, and hence the name. When the English colonists landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they encountered the wild relatives of the domesticated bird they were already familiar with from their home. Subsequent ships soon brought domesticated turkeys to the colonists, some of which they crossbred with wild turkeys.

Turkey remained a popular game animal for centuries. By the early 20th Century, hunting and habitat loss brought the wild turkey to the brink of extinction. After decades of mostly ineffective attempts at restoring the turkey, the 1980s brought success in well-funded and organized “trap and transfer” programs. Currently, the wild turkey population is approximately 7 million birds in North America.

Wild turkeys are such a conservation success that some people even find them a nuisance in suburbs and cities where they are common. Males can be aggressive toward people as they try to establish a dominance hierarchy, much like dogs do in a pack. They will also often attack reflective objects, including windows and hubcaps, since they view their reflection as another turkey to be dominated. Some nuisance aside, many people are thrilled to be able to see such a large, wild bird up close, and to know that one of our native animals has made such a strong recovery. Wild turkey hunters are also fans of the large population that allows them to hunt these big, magnificent birds. Since the fall turkey hunting season runs for most of the month of October, there are some families that will have a genuine wild turkey on their Thanksgiving table this year.

Learn more about turkeys and get to touch some real turkey feathers, feet and other cool stuff at our free, drop-in program, Turkey Time Family Funday on Sunday, November 25, from 1:30-3 p.m. If you have young children, come to our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals.


November Public Programs

November 3—Birding: Mississippi River Flyway: learn how birds use the river to guide their migration, while hiking with a naturalist-guide, 9-10:30 a.m., ages 8 and up.

November 10—Hike: Our Park, Past & Present: discover how the Mississippi and the people who use it have changed over time, 2-3 p.m.

November 17—Nature Art: Cornucopias: craft your own “horn of plenty” using materials found in the park, 1:30-2:30 p.m.

November 23—Nature’s Black Friday Fun: Ditch the mall and opt outside this year, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

November 25—Family Funday: Turkey Time: Learn about turkeys while playing games and doing crafts, 1:30-3 p.m.

November 28—Nature Nuts Play Group: four weeks of adult/child nature exploration, 10:45-11:45 a.m. Ages 5 and under with an adult. $16 for four Wednesdays. Runs through December 19.

Find registration for these programs and more at or call 612-370-4844 for more details. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing and it could appear in a future article. This month look for something natural in your neighborhood that you are thankful for. Create a drawing or take a picture, then show and tell a naturalist at the front desk to receive a prize! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of November. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!

This article was written by Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist, North Mississippi Regional Park