The wild turkey was designated the official game bird of Alabama in 1980. A true native American, the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the largest and most widely distributed of the six recognized subspecies of wild turkey in North America . The male can grow up to four feet tall and weigh well over 20 pounds. Hens may be almost as tall but usually weigh no more than 12 - 14 pounds. The wild turkey is also an official state symbol of Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Native Americans enjoyed an abundance of turkeys for thousands of years before settlers arrived in the New World, although Indians generally avoided eating turkey (regarding it as "starvation food" - believing that turkey was fit to hunt only by children, women, and Europeans). The Indians valued turkeys more for their feathers and as spiritual symbols.
By the early 1900's wild turkeys had all but disappeared (a result of commercial harvesting and habitat destruction). Fortunately, conservation and wildlife organizations intervened, and the wild turkey made a dramatic recovery - today 6.4 million wild turkeys roam the lower 49 states.
Turkeys are unique, resiliant, and prolific. The male turkey (Tom) strives to mate with many females. Toms begin their breeding displays in early spring - strutting proudly for the hens with fanned tail and fluffed feathers. The Toms' head turns a bright red during this mating display.
Toms have nothing to do with the poults (baby turkeys), leaving all nesting and rearing chores to the female. A turkey hen lays 9 - 12 eggs in a shallow nest where she incubates her clutch for about 28 days. She then leads her newly hatched brood to forage for insects, berries and seeds.
Wild Turkey as National Bird?
Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his daughter:
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country....
I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."