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Are you ready to talk turkey?

We have 3 turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) on exhibit here at the VLM.   All of them came from breeders around the area.  The 2 older turkeys, the male, called a Tom or a Gobbler, and the darker female,called a hen, came from a breeder over in Smithfield. They are both about 6 years old.  The lighter colored hen is a little younger and came from a breeder up in Chesterfield. She’s about 2 years old.  Male turkeys are the ones to make the familiar gobbling noise. Females cannot gobble, they can only cluck. Turkeys nest from Mid-April to Mid-June here, the peak of nesting occurring around Mid-May. The male will mate with multiple females.  Hens will lay up to 16 eggs in a clutch and she will do so over a period of about a week or so.  Once all of the eggs have been laid, it takes about 28 days for them to hatch. After those 28 days, the young turkeys, called poults, will move out of the nesting area within a day of hatching. The young are precocial and are able to move around and forage for food with the hen after leaving the nest. Turkeys can live to be 12-15 years old in captivity, and typically only live in the wild for less than 10 years.

Turkeys have interesting features that stand out upon first glance. One of the first things people notice about turkeys are the red, fleshy stretches of skin and bulbous growths located around the head and neck region. These structures are the:
  • Caruncle-fleshy bumps on the head and neck
  • Snood-long flap of flesh that hangs over the beak
  • Wattle-red skin that hangs from the neck
The skin that is seen on the throat and head changes color from a flat gray, to shades of red, white, or blue, depending on how the bird is reacting to it’s environment.  The color changes of the skin happen when the bird is distressed or excited or nervous.

Another prominent and noticeable feature of the turkey is its plumage. An abundance of feathers covers the breast, wings, back, body and tail of the bird. Male turkeys also have what is called a beard located in the chest area. Upon sight, the beard appears to be hair, but is actually a mass of thin feathers. It grows from the chest below the neck and consists of black feathers that resemble long coarse hairs. The beard grows longer with age. Hens may occasionally have beards, although they are typically not as well developed as the ones seen on the males. 

Male turkeys have sharp, bony, spike-like projections on their legs called spurs, which can be quite sharp and are used for fighting. I’ve known of some hens that will actually have small spurs too, but that’s not as commonly seen as it is within the males.

They have fewer taste buds than mammals and it is believed they can taste salt, sweet, acid and bitter tastes. Turkeys also have a poor sense of smell as the region of the brain that controls the sense of smell is relatively small.

Turkeys have great hearing, but no external ears. They can also see in color, and have excellent visual acuity and a wide field of vision, about 270 degrees, which makes sneaking up on them difficult.

Turkeys are able to adapt to a wide variety of habitats. However, most turkeys are found in hardwood forests with grassy areas.

A spooked turkey can run at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. They can also burst into flight approaching speeds between 50-55 mph in a matter of seconds. Wild turkeys, since they are a little smaller than domestic turkeys,  have the ability to fly, while domesticated turkeys do not.  Because domesticated turkeys have been bred to have heavier breast meat, this limits their flight ability.

At one time, the turkey and the bald eagle were each considered as the national symbol of America.  Benjamin Franklin argued passionately on behalf of the turkey. Franklin felt the turkey, although “vain and silly”, was a better choice than the bald eagle,whom he felt was “a coward”.

The ballroom dance known as the Turkey Trot was named for the short, jerky steps a turkey makes.
Turkeys are the only breed of poultry native to the Western Hemisphere.  For more information click here:
The first unofficial presidential pardons were granted to domestic turkeys in1947, and since then every president has “pardoned” two birds (a presidential turkey and a vice presidential turkey) before Thanksgiving. Each Thanksgiving, the President “pardons” a hand-selected turkey, sparing the bird from someone’s dinner table and ensuring the rest of its days are spent roaming on a farm, doing whatever it is turkeys love to do.
If you would like to see the turkeys up close, please come to the VLM and enjoy a turkey pardoning event that will occur the day before Thanksgiving.  The mayor of Newport News is coming to the Museum on the morning of November 21 to participate in a symbolic ceremony to pardon our turkeys. Please check the Virginia Living Museum’s website for more information about the event. Gobble, Gobble, Gobble!

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