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Turkey: The Bird of Thanksgiving – But Why?

When did we start eating turkeys at Thanksgiving, and why?

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It’s almost Thanksgiving, and with that knowledge comes thoughts of big family dinners with a golden turkey as the centerpiece. How far back does the tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving go? Some suggest it all started with the Pilgrims with what is referred to as the First Thanksgiving in 1621. However, there is no direct mention of eating turkeys, specifically, at that time. Instead, accounts refer to hunting and preparing “fowl,” which could mean several different birds such as pheasant or peacock. Still, the large native bird has become a symbol of holiday meals, and for some families, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same without a roasted turkey gracing the table.

It is not certain when the big bird became so popular. There are those who say it started with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. However, others give credit to Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Northwood in 1827. She dedicated a complete chapter to describing a New England Thanksgiving meal, mentioning a roasted turkey “placed at the head of the table.”

Why Turkey?

Calling someone a turkey is an old insult – but it comes from the more modern domesticated turkey. Farm-raised turkeys have a reputation for being stupid birds. Wild turkeys are entirely different. If Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey would have been America’s national bird. The turkeys that so inspired Franklin were big, beautiful, smart, and could actually fly. They were also plentiful, and one turkey could feed an entire family.

As author G.T. Klein said, the American turkey was “wild and wary to the point of genius.” Turkeys live in flocks, so imagine what a sight it would be to see a flock of such large birds flying through the sky. The wild turkey is much different than the domestics that are bred for the dinner table. They are brightly plumed and have longer necks and legs than meat birds. They also had smaller chests. Commercial turkeys are bred to have larger breasts (for the white meat). In fact, turkeys now have such huge chests that the males, known as Toms, are too large to mate in the traditional manner, so the eggs are fertilized by artificial insemination.

Interesting Facts

The character Big Bird from Sesame Street uses nearly 4,000 white turkey feathers for its costume. The feathers are dyed the bright yellow that Big Bird has become famous for.

What sound does a turkey make?  If you said “gobble, gobble,” you’d just be partially correct. Only the tom turkeys gobble, the females make a clucking or clicking sound.

Wild turkeys prefer to sleep in trees at night but build their nests on land using dry leaves.

In bowling, three strikes in a row is known as a turkey.

The largest of the birds is the Bronze turkey. Adult males (toms) can weigh up to 50 pounds while females (hens) only weigh up to about 16 pounds.

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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