Wild turkeys were an endangered species by the 1930s. Today, more than 7 million roam across North America. ((iStock photo))

Millions of wild turkeys used to roam freely across much of North and South America, but by the 1930s, over-hunting had reduced them to an endangered species. There were an estimated 30,000 wild birds left in the United States.

But after decades of restocking the population, there are now about seven million wild turkeys in North America.

World turkey production

 Rank Country 2006 Production (tonnes)
1 United States 3,259,700
2 France 501,127
3 Germany 375,996
Italy 273,816
5 Brazil 215,190 
6 United Kingdom 206,031 
7 Canada 163,411 
8 Hungary 108,018 
9 Israel 105,000
10 Chile  90,399
Total World  5,797,749 

Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census of Agriculture and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006.

The turkey is a variety of pheasant. Archaeological evidence suggests turkeys roamed North America as far back as 10 million years ago. Native Americans domesticated them about 2,000 years ago.

A male turkey is called a "tom" and a female turkey a "hen." A large group of turkeys is called a "flock."

Wild turkeys are found in hardwood forests with grassy areas. They spend the night in trees. They have excellent vision and hearing but don't see well at night. They can fly short distances at speeds of up to 90 km/h and can run at speeds of up to 40 km/h.

Domesticated turkeys do not fly — because of selective breeding — and aren't likely to run very much, either. By the time the average turkey is ready for your table, it has been so fattened up at the factory farm that it has as much chance of achieving flight as you do.

It takes 17 to 20 weeks to raise a turkey that weighs 10.8 kilograms or more. That bird will have consumed around 30 kilograms of feed while it was alive.

Canada is one of the world's biggest producers of turkeys. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian farmers produced 180,000 tonnes of turkey in 2008. That's an increase of 6.5 per cent from the previous year.

Canadian consumption of turkey has remained relatively stable over the past two decades — at around 2.2 kilograms per person per year. However, production has increased substantially as Canadian turkey exports have grown by 30 per cent since 2001.

The top turkey-eating country in the world is Israel, at 11.5 kg per person every year. Here's how other countries measure up, per person per year:

  • United States: 7.7 kg. 
  • France: 5.9 kg. 
  • United Kingdom: 4.8 kg. 
  • European Union: 4.0 kg.

Why is this type of poultry called 'turkey'?

There are several theories:

  • The Native American name for turkey is "firkee." 
  • The wild turkey's call sounds like "turk-turk-turk." 
  • Christopher Columbus named them "titka," which is the word for peacock in the Tamil language of India. Columbus thought the New World was connected to India.

Why do turkeys gobble?

Male turkeys gobble; hens make a clicking sound. The gobble is a seasonal call for the males. They also gobble when they hear loud noises and when they settle in for the night.

What are those fleshy things on turkey heads?


The long fleshy area that grows from a turkey's forehead is called a 'snood.' ((iStock photo))

The long, red, fleshy area that grows from the forehead over the bill is a "snood" while the fleshy growth under the turkey's throat is called a "wattle." These pieces fill up with blood and turn bright red when a tom wants to attract a hen but they can also turn blue if the turkey is scared. If a turkey isn't feeling well, the snood and wattle become very pale.

Are there different breeds?

Common domesticated breeds include: Bronze, Broad Breasted Bronze, Broad Breasted Large White, Black, Bourbon Red, White Holland, Narragansett and Beltsville Small White.

Why does turkey have white and dark meat?

For the same reason that chicken does: the legs and thighs contain dark meat because the muscles are more heavily exercised from walking and contain more fat than the meat that comes from the breast. White meat has less oxygen-carrying myoglobin than dark meat. The more work a muscle does — whether you're a bird or a person — the more oxygen it needs.

What's with the wishbone? Does it serve a purpose?

What's on the label?

 Nutrient   Dark meat (raw, skinless, boneless drumstick)/100 g serving White meat (raw, skinless, boneless breast)/100 g serving
Calories 105 103 
Fat 2.73 g  0.82 g 
Cholesterol 61 mg  50 mg 
Protein 19.1 mg  23.4 mg 

The superstition goes that when you find a wishbone, two people should each grasp one part of the wishbone pull; whoever is holding the longest part when it breaks will have their wish come true.

For turkeys — at least the ones who spend their life in the wild — the wishbone, which is called the furcula, is key to strengthening their skeleton to withstand the rigors of flight. It's formed by the fusion of the two clavicles at the sternum.

The bone is elastic, allowing it to act as a spring that stores and releases energy during flight.

Why can't I buy turkey eggs at the supermarket?


Domestic turkeys are raised in cramped quarters. They're ready for market seven or eight months after they hatch. ((iStock photo) )

Turkeys basically aren't the egg-producing machines that chickens are. There are also a lot more chickens in this country than turkeys. It takes turkeys longer than chickens to start producing eggs, and once they start, they produce far fewer eggs than chickens.

Turkeys also tend to be far more protective of their eggs than chickens. They'll stay with them until they hatch and do what they can to keep you away from them.

Why do I feel sleepy after eating turkey?

Probably because you've had too much of it, combined with too much dessert and maybe too much of other stuff as well.

Yes, turkey contains an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which the human body needs to build certain proteins. The body uses L-tryptophan to make serotonin, which has a tranquilizing effect.

However, many foods contain the same amino acid — and in much greater quantities than turkey. Ever feel sleepy after eating raw soybeans? Maybe you should. They contain more than twice the levels of L-tryptophan than turkey does.

What's with the cranberry sauce and stuffing?

It's believed Native Americans taught the colonialists how to cook cranberries and different kinds of corn, squash and pumpkin dishes.

The origins of stuffing are not certain. Some experts say it's a traditional dish made from bread and vegetables and most probably originated in Eastern Europe.