Meet the Turkey's Glamorous Mexican Cousin

The Thanksgiving dinner favourite is much more sophisticated than you thought.

It's nearly Thanksgiving for American folk which means that everyone is talking turkey on their turf, but these birds are more than just a holiday tradition.

From elaborate courtship displays to flying, here are some surprising facts you may not have known about the dinnertime favourite.

THERE'S MORE THAN ONE TURKEY

The wild turkey has six subspecies and a glamorous cousin from Central America. What better time than Thanksgiving to meet the whole family?

Male ocellated turkeys, which range throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, sports copper and emerald feathers and a blue face. Female feathers are more subdued.

“What a gorgeous bird,” says Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. The term ocellated comes from the eyespot pattern on its tail, explains Mulvihill—ocella means "small eyes" in Latin. Males will fan these fancy feathers to impress females. (See our favourite pictures of turkeys for Thanksgiving.)

There are six subspecies of wild turkey, including the Eastern wild turkey, which is the most ubiquitous, ranging from the U.S. Midwest to the East Coast up to southern Quebec.

The Eastern wild turkey has the biggest range of any turkey species, covering much of North America. - PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN PENNOYER, DEMBINSKY PHOTO ASSOCIATES, ALAMY

The subspecies Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo is the wild ancestor of the domesticated turkey that ends up on our dinner plates. Native Mexicans domesticated the animal, and the Spanish exported the bird to Europe in the 1500s, McGowan says. The Pilgrims then brought turkeys back to the New World in 1620.

Other subspecies include the smaller, darker Osceola turkey, which only lives in Florida; Merriam’s wild turkey, known for its unique white-tipped feathers; and the Rio Grande turkey, which sports copper, red, and green, among other colours.

The Osceola turkey is a subspecies only found in Florida. - PHOTOGRAPH BY MARESA PRYOR, ANIMALS ANIMALS, EARTH SCENES, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

FLASHY MALES PUT ON A SHOW

Wild turkeys “are the quintessential flocking bird,” Mulvihill says, "living in flocks much of the year." Even in mating season, males gather in a group called a lek.

A lek is "one-stop shopping for females,” Mulvihill says—the males stay put in one place, strutting their stuff, while females come by and survey the goods. (Read about more weird animal courtship rituals.)

During such courtship displays, males try to make themselves more showy by changing the colour of their face from pink to blue, enlarging their wattle, and turning their forehead white, says Kevin McGowan, a behavioural ecologist at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

Not only that, but “they fluff their wingtips down to the ground, and that makes a really deep sound, almost too deep to hear," McGowan says.

Such infrasound travels a long way, and it’s quite possible that males may be trying to get the attention of females from afar, he adds.

TURKEYS CAN FLY

If you think a turkey can't fly, you're partially right: Domestic turkeys "get so big they can’t fly, whereas in the wild if you can’t fly, you're dead,” McGowan says.

Like peacocks, turkeys are “burst flyers—they just explode off the ground and go a short distance and they quit.”

The wild turkey occurs in every U.S. state except Alaska. - PHOTOGRAPH BY DARLYNE A. MURAWSKI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Seeing a nearly 20-pound bird take flight was a surprise, even for an expert. “The first time I saw one,” McGowan says, "I thought 'What? It's like a dragon! Oh, it's a turkey!'

TURKEYS, FAUX REAL

Some birds aren’t turkeys, but are nicknamed as such for their broad tail feathers, like Florida’s anhinga, or water turkey, because of its broad, dark brown tail, Mulvihill says.

A doppelganger called the Australian brush-turkey is not a turkey at all, but has the trademark red head and black tail feathers.

North America's turkey vultures are also bald like turkeys.

THEY'RE BOUNCING BACK

Hunting and habitat loss nearly wiped out wild turkey populations in the United States, but the species has rebounded due to reintroduction programs. (Related: "A Reason to Give Thanks: The Return of the Wild Turkey.")

The Narragansett turkey (pictured at the Knoxville Zoo) is a cross between the Eastern wild turkey and the domestic turkey. - PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Though turkeys are notorious for being aggressive and pesky, especially in suburban neighbourhoods, they're actually very skittish in areas where they're hunted.

Can you blame them? It's a wise turkey that hides out until Black Friday.

 

Lead image: Male ocellated turkeys (pictured, an animal at the Dallas World Aquarium) have beautiful feathers that they use to entice females. - Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative

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