Turkey Facts and Stats

Turkey Facts
Poultry are birds raised for their meat or eggs. The species includes chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. Most of the poultry produced throughout the United States are either chickens or turkeys. The only major meat animal native to North America is the turkey. North Carolina and Minnesota produce the most turkeys in the United States.

A male turkey is called a tom, and a female turkey is a hen. Turkey hens that are used to produce fertile eggs begin laying eggs at about seven to eight months of age; it takes about 28 days for a turkey egg to hatch.

Newborn toms and hens, called poults, are separated and placed in brooder houses for six to eight weeks, where they have feed and water at all times. Then they are moved to outdoor pens in warm weather or to grower houses where they are fed until they go to market. Turkeys are fed grains such as corn and soybeans.

Turkeys do not have teeth; they use their beaks to pick up food. They swallow pieces of whole grain and small stones called grit, and store it in the crop. Turkeys provide such food as sandwich meat, drumsticks, turkey breast, and turkey bacon. Poultry feathers can be processed as a source of protein for livestock feeds.

The National Turkey Federation (NTF) estimates that approximately 45 million turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, and 19 million at Easter.

Ninety-one percent of Americans surveyed by the NTF eat turkey at Thanksgiving. The average weight of turkeys purchased for Thanksgiving is 15 pounds; that's about 675 million pounds of turkey consumed in the United States on Thanksgiving Day.

Some people think turkey causes sleepiness after the Thanksgiving meal. Think again. Studies have shown that there is no scientific evidence that turkey makes you sleepy. It is likely that the large servings of carbohydrate-rich foods served with the meal are what make you sleepy rather than the turkey. The food releases tryptophans in the brain, causing drowsiness.

General Turkey Facts
The turkey is a variety of the pheasant. The origin of the name is unclear, but some interesting theories exist. Christopher Columbus thought the New World was connected to India. He called the unusual bird "tuka," which is peacock in the Tamil language of India. Another tale says the merchants who sold turkeys in Spain changed the Tamil "tuka" to the Hebrew "tukki," which then evolved into the English "turkey." Others maintain the American Indian name for the bird was "firkee." Another theory says the present name "turkey" came from the alarm call of the bird, which sounds something like "turc, turc, turc."

Who first domesticated the turkey? There is archeological evidence that turkeys were at least confined, if not domesticated, by the Southwest Indians as long as 2,000 years ago. Some scientists believe the Aztecs were the first to domesticate the turkey.

Christopher Columbus and later Hernando Cortez both acquired a taste for turkey in the Western Hemisphere and both took some back to Europe. By 1530, turkeys were being raised domestically in Italy, France, and England. When the Pilgrims and other early settlers arrived on American shores, they already were familiar with eating turkey.

Some experts think the Pilgrims served the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. Others credit the settlers of Virginia's Jamestown with celebrating the first Thanksgiving as their version of England's ancient Harvest Home Festival.

Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle's "bad moral character," saying, "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original of America."

President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, supposedly as a response to a campaign organized by magazine editor Sara Joseph Hale. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day forward one week, as it is presently celebrated.

Abraham Lincoln's son, Tad, had a pet turkey. When it was suggested that the bird might make a fine holiday dinner, the boy set up such a howl of protest that the President finally issued a "Presidential Pardon" for Tad's pet.

Each year, the live turkey is "pardoned" by the President and sent to a historical farm to live out the rest of its years. Harry Truman was the first President to receive this honor in 1947. For nearly 60 years, the National Turkey Federation has presented the President of the United States a live turkey and two dressed turkeys in celebration of Thanksgiving.

When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin sat down to eat their first meal on the moon, their foil food packets contained roasted turkey and all the trimmings.

A tom turkey can produce as many as 1,500 poults during a hen's six-month production cycle.

Turkey Trivia
The top five most popular ways to serve leftover Thanksgiving turkey are: sandwiches, soups or stews, salads, casseroles, and stir-fry.

The smallest turkeys available are called fryer roasters and range from five to nine pounds.

The largest turkeys available weigh more than 40 pounds.

In 1970 the average American ate 8.2 pounds of turkey. By 1980, that average had jumped to 10.3 pounds. Since the early 1990's, U.S. per capita turkey consumption has been about 17 to 18 pounds.

Turkeys are fed mainly a balanced diet of corn and soybean meal mixed with a supplement of vitamins and minerals. Fresh water is available at all times.

The American Farm Bureau reported that, in 2005, the traditional Thanksgiving meal cost $36.78 to serve 10 people. The menu included turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, peas, rolls with butter, cranberries, a relish dish, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee or milk. Importantly, the real (inflation-adjusted) cost of the meal is unchanged in the past 15 years, and is actually lower than 20 years ago.

Californians are the biggest turkey eaters in the country. They eat three pounds more turkey than the average American consumer.

The Israelis eat more than 22 pounds of turkey each year, largely because red-meat production in Israel is limited and it is expensive.

Only tom turkeys gobble. Hen turkeys make a clicking noise.

A large group of turkeys is called a flock.

A baby turkey is called a poult and is tan and brown.

Turkey eggs are tan with brown specks and are larger than chicken eggs.

The "caruncle" on a turkey is a red-pink fleshy growth on the head and upper neck of the turkey.

The "snood" is a long, red, fleshy growth from the base of the beak that hangs down over the beard.

The "wattle" is a bright red appendage at the neck.

The "beard" is a black lock of hair found on the chest of a male turkey.

Domesticated turkeys cannot fly. Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour and can run 20 miles per hour.

Turkeys have approximately 3,500 feathers at maturity. The bulk of turkey feathers are composted or otherwise disposed of; however, some feathers may be used for special purposes. For instance, dyed feathers are used to make American Indian costumes or as quills for pens.

The costume "Big Bird" wears on Sesame Street is rumored to be made of turkey feathers. Turkey feather down has been used to make pillows, and for commercial use, turkey skins are tanned and used to make items like cowboy boots, belts, or other accessories.

For Additional Turkey Statistical Information
  • National Turkey Federation
  • Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council
  • USDA Quick Stats
  • The above statistics are courtesy of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, the National Turkey Federation, and the Minnesota Turkey Research and Promotion Council.